SANTA ROSA, California (VN) — A cylinder of stiff plastic forces John Degenkolb’s left index finger into a straight line, pointing forward. It doesn’t hurt much, but that finger can’t shift or brake, so his middle finger now does both. In the split-second world of sprinting, it’s enough to put him on the back foot, fighting for a top ten rather than victory.
“It’s about getting used to it and building an automation to use [my middle finger],” he said after Saturday’s penultimate stage of the Amgen Tour of California, where he finished eighth. “That’s important, because in a sprint I don’t have time to think about how I brake, you have to react in a flash and follow the instinct.”
The Tour of California is the German’s second race since the crash in January, which was caused by a British driver on the wrong side of the road and sent five Giant-Alpecin riders to the hospital. It’s the first race Degenkolb looks set to finish, and comes after the longest break of his career. He is both rebuilding his form and resetting muscle memory gained over more than a decade of bike racing. It’s a slow process, he said. But he’s moving forward.
“It’s the first longer break I had in my whole career yet, so it’s all a bit new for me,” he said. Beyond mere fitness — he says he’s already back at a “good level” — it’s the less tangible aspects of bike racing that are slow to return.
Degenkolb used to revel in the battle for position that comes in the final kilometers, but now finds it more difficult. “When you see how I fought for the position in San Remo, that this is exactly what I’m good at, normally,” he said. “So this is what I just have to work on to get back on the same level. I don’t have the assertiveness yet, that I normally have to race for the victory in a final like this. But I think it was the next exclamation mark on my way back to have a top ten finish here.
“I’m not much missing, but it’s that one percent that decides if you can sprint for the victory. But my legs were not bad today and I think I’ve shown here that I am back on a good level and that my shape is going up.”
There’s no question that the Degenkolb in California is not the same man who won Milano-Sanremo or Paris-Roubaix. He hasn’t reached the end of his road to full recovery, but California is a key paving stone. He needed a week of hard racing, and that’s what he found. The top 10 on Saturday, at the end of a physically demanding stage in Santa Rosa, was proof that he’s close to his old self.
“I think I was the only one today who was really happy that it was such a hard race, because that’s what I really need, that’s what I did not have for more than half a year and that’s something you can not simulate in training,” he said. “So that was exactly right for me, exactly what I hoped to get this week.”
The next objective is the Tour de France, and another French stage win. He will ride either the Criterium du Dauphine or Tour de Suisse in preparation, but hasn’t decided which yet. “The main thing is to do one,” he said. “It’s just important to have a good [training] load, and to do a training block before.”
The goal, as always, is the Tour. “Even if it sounds a bit high because I don’t have results this season, but the goal for me obviously is a stage win,” he said. “For sure, that’s like every other year.”