Now a six-time stage winner in the grand tours, German John Degenkolb shares the burden of his homeland's cycling future
MATERA, Italy (VN) — In early August 2012, German John Degenkolb had never won a stage of a grand tour. Fast forward to early May 2013, and he’s won six.
After winning five stages at the Vuelta a España last summer, the 24-year-old Argos-Shimano strongman added to his grand tour tally Wednesday in Matera with a well-timed — and well-positioned — uphill sprint.
The 2012 UCI Europe Tour champion — who finished in the top 10 last year at Milano-Sanremo, the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), E3 Harelebeke, and the road world championship — specifically targeted the Wednesday’s difficult finale, and avoided a late-race crash to add perhaps his biggest victory to his growing palmares.
“I was just behind the crash and it was pretty slippery, it was wet, and they just went too fast into the second-to-last corner,” Degenkolb said. “Luckily I had a small gap behind them and could still brake and come around that crash. I had to pull out of my pedals, and then just accelerated.
“I saw that one guy from Bardiani Valvole [Marco Canola] made it through the corner, so I sprinted up to him, and then I looked back and saw Elia Viviani (Cannondale) behind me, and I thought, ‘now it’s time to gamble,’ and I went all in. I had to give everything I had to make it. I did a sprint of almost one kilometer. It was really hard. I was really suffering. I think at the end I probably had a lactate of 35. It was really hard — really, really, hard.”
The stocky German is less of a traditional field sprinter, and more of a strongman capable of overpowering riders at the end of a difficult stage. Asked to put Wednesday’s victory in context, Degenkolb said his 2013 season had been a bit of a struggle after an amazing run last year and a breakout neo-pro season with HTC-Highroad in 2011.
“This is a pretty important victory for me,” Degenkolb said. “Last year, when I was winning stages at the Vuelta, we were in the flow. If it’s running, it’s running, you are winning and your self-confidence just grows. I won five stages, and sometimes I still can’t believe it.
“Then this year has not exactly gone how we planned. I was preparing pretty good for the classics, my shape was not bad, but the weather was special this year for the spring classics, it was so cold. I had to stop Tirreno-Adriatico due to muscle problems, and in the end, it turned out to be not a perfect spring classics season. I stopped after Roubaix, had a break, and started training again. It was really nice to train at home. I had three weeks at home, and that gave me some energy back after a hard and cold classics season. Now I am happy to be back in business.”
Degenkolb’s past is unusual for a professional cyclist. He took up cycling in 1997, the year German Jan Ullrich won the Tour de France. After graduating from high school he started a police education, which he undertook for six years. “I still have police status,” Degenkolb said. “Just the basic qualification, two blue stars.”
As soon as he finished his police service, Degenkolb turned pro with HTC-Highroad. In his rookie season, he won two stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné as well as stages at Volta ao Algarve and Three Days of West Flanders.
Along with teammate Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Wednesday’s third-place finisher Paul Martens (Blanco), Degenkolb is part of the new generation of German riders, pedaling out from under the shadow of scandal that saw German stars like Ullrich, Erik Zabel, and Stefan Schumacher all admit to doping during cycling’s darkest period.
In July, he hopes to start his first Tour, 16 years after Ullrich’s seminal moment for German cycling.
“I think it’s really important to German cycling that the new generation is having victories,” He said. “When you see Tony Martin and Marcel Kittel and the new generation, we’re all good friends and we have a big responsibility to make cycling clean and transparent again. For us, it’s really important to do a good job. We want to be idols for the generation beneath us, and to do a better job than the generation before us. I feel very responsible, and I hope this shows that we have now a new cycling generation. It’s not like 15 years ago. It’s changed.”
More than anything, Degenkolb said his stage win came as a relief, leading an entire team that has pinned its Giro d’Italia hopes upon his shoulders.
“For a sprinter or a classics rider, every month, every week, that you don’t win, it’s not a nice feeling,” he said. “You are always waiting and waiting. I’m really happy that I have proven that I am a captain again, and to give back to my teammates that what they give to me.”