The emotion of victory defeated German stoicism on Sunday afternoon in Roubaix.
Tears in his eyes, John Degenkolb struggled to describe his feelings after winning Sunday’s 9th stage of the Tour de France, a wild and crash-filled journey over the cobblestones from Amiens to Roubaix. Degenkolb is one of the peloton’s brawniest riders, a winner of the 2015 edition of Paris-Roubaix. Known for his straight-faced interviews and no-nonsense attitude, the big German was simply overcome as he spoke to reporters after his victory.
His win was unbelievable, no, it was pure happiness. No, it was…
“It’s fantastic can really find the right words to express how this feels,” Degenkolb said. “The end is pretty similar to what I experienced in 2015 when I was sitting right here. It’s amazing.”
Sunday’s victory marks Degenkolb’s first major victory since the 2015 season, when he was perhaps the best one-day racer on the planet. That year Degenkolb won Milano-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, and even a stage of the Vuelta a España. The season made him one of the most sought-after riders on the planet. Since then, he has not had a single victory in cycling’s WorldTour.
“Really, I was chasing this victory for so long,” Degenkolb added. “It’s hard to describe.”
Whatever emotions coursed through Degenkolb’s mind were unquestionably informed by the bitterness of the last two seasons and the incident that sparked Degenkolb’s drought. VeloNews readers may remember that, in January of 2016, Degenkolb and his Giant-Alpecin teammates were on a training ride in Alicante, Spain when they were struck, head-on, by an elderly driver who was driving on the wrong side of the road. The crash injured six riders. American Chad Haga to the emergency room with fractures to his face; he received 45 stitches to his face and throat. Warren Barguil fractured his scaphoid. Max Walscheid broke his tibia. Two others received minor injuries.
Degenkolb received the worst damage. The crash broke his left forearm, and nearly ripped his left index finger off of his hand. One cannot steer a bicycle without the digit, let alone grasp a handlebar over pavé. Degenkolb underwent surgery to repair the hand. During his 2016 Classics campaign, Degenkolb told reporters he was healing, and that he would soon be back to 100 percent.
That full recovery never really occurred. Degenkolb’s 2016 classics campaign was a wash. At the end of the season, he signed a big, multi-year contract to lead Trek-Segafredo’s northern classics team for 2017 and 2018. Trek hired talented cobble crushers Jasper Stuyven, Fabio Felline, and Mads Petersen to aide Degenkolb’s efforts. In both years Degenkolb was a disappointment. In 2017 he was just off the pace of the winners. In 2018 he was farther behind and said that he was working for Stuyven.
After his dismal 2018, cycling pundits began to wonder whether Degenkolb, at 29 years old, would ever reach cycling’s pinnacle again. When Degenkolb fought through a knee injury earlier this season, he began to doubt himself too.
“You start to doubt if you also can do it,” Degenkolb said. “That is the hardest part, to not lost the trust in yourself and the belief you can still be up there.”
Degenkolb’s return to the top step required both excellent luck and strong tactics from Trek-Segafredo. Despite a flat tire for GC leader Bauke Mollema—who finished in the main group alongside Chris Froome—the team suffered few, if any, setbacks. The team avoided the crashes that took down Mikel Landa (Movistar), Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), and others.
Stuyven attacked into the fourth pavé sector with 24 km remaining, forcing the favorites to chase. The move placed Degenkolb in a preferable position. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) chased, as did Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), while Degenkolb rode near the front.
With 18km remaining Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors) charged off the front on the Camphin-en-Pévèle sector, and was joined by Van Avermaet. Sensing the move might stick Degenkolb powered away from the group to make the duo a trio. Behind, there was no response from the peloton.
The three built a sizable gap over the group, and as they came into the final kilometer Degenkolb rolled to the front. Usually, such a position can open a rider up to sneak attacks in the finale. As the strongest sprinter in the group, Degenkolb chose to lead the kick to the line. He opened his spring inside 200 meters, and held off Van Avermaet to take the win.
Degenkolb’s’ emotions at the finish line were heightened by a recent personal tragedy. The German told reporters that a family friend, described as “my second father,” passed away over the winter. Degenkolb dedicated his victory to the memory of his deceased friend. After several questions, Degenkolb acknowledged the disappointments of the last three seasons.
“So many people said he’s done, he’s over, he will never come back. I am so happy to show all these guys who didn’t believe me that I am still there, I am still alive,” he said. “I think that’s also what I took out of this accident: that you have to be happy after such a horrible crash that you are still alive, you’re still there. I was fighting my way back, and I am so proud.”
Dane Cash and Andrew Hood contributed to this report from Roubaix, France.