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SANREMO, Italy (VN) — German John Degenkolb had his day along the Italian Riviera Sunday in Sanremo. He fished for years, reeling in bigger and bigger ones, and his dedication resulted in one of the trophy catches: a monument, Milano-Sanremo.
For Giant-Alpecin’s Degenkolb, Milano-Sanremo sits in a special category of bicycle races along with Tour de France stages and the world championships. With his sprint ahead of 2014 winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), he took his first win at such a level.
On his palmares, he now counts one of cycling’s five monuments, the biggest catch in the 26-year-old’s career that includes wins at Gent-Wevelgem, the Vattenfall Cyclassics, Paris-Tours, and a staggering nine stages in the Vuelta a España.
To match the success, he would have to win one of the other monuments, like the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) or Paris-Roubaix in the next three weeks, or a Tour de France stage this summer. Another option would be to lead Germany to a world championship win. This year, the cycling world will descend on Richmond, Virginia.
Thinking so far ahead, though, would spoil Degenkolb’s due party.
“This is the best day in my cycling career,” Degenkolb said when he sat down with the press in Sanremo.
“I’m just so proud and happy in the same moment. It’s unbelievable.”
Unbelievable, but true. It is true that the German from Gera (still East Germany for 10 months after his birth) was one of the most cheerful and relaxed cyclists of the 199 that began from a damp and cool Milan morning. After the sign in and a brief interview on the podium, he rode alone back to the team bus on Corso Sempione. At an intersection, a police officer waved his “lollipop,” or stop sign. Degenkolb, being a former policeman, made sure to stop even if this was one of Milan’s biggest sporting days and he was one of the show’s stars.
Quietly and alone, while fans inspected Degenkolb’s bike and legs, he waited as 10 cars drove by on the cross street. Only once the police officer put down his lollypop did he continue to Giant’s white and black bus. He leaned his bike against it, smiled at the support staff, shared a few words, and climbed in for the final 15 minutes before his 300-kilometer ride to Sanremo.
In 2014, it did not go so well. He won four times in the lead-up to the race, which included a stage in Paris-Nice. Again he was one of the stars of the show, but the director pulled him before the final act.
“One year ago, it was the biggest disappointment in my career,” he said. “I had the legs to be there and sprint like today, but I punctured before the Poggio.”
About 500 meters before the group turned right and inland off the Via Aurelia to begin the race’s final climb last year, his tire went flat. He had to change his bike, but it was too late to catch the favorites, including Kristoff.
He showed he could have won when a week later in Belgium he topped Gent-Wevelgem’s results sheet. Being a one-day classic, that was a big catch, but it was just shy of the status that comes along with the five one-day monuments: Milano-Sanremo, the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Il Lombardia.
“Milano-Sanremo’s a special race. The start in Milan, traffic islands, rail lines, cobbles and crashes. I kept relaxed, stayed calm, and saved my legs. On the Via Aurelia [seaside road], you shouldn’t be too far up front or too far back, you’ve got to find a balance,” Degenkolb said.
“Experience is also important. I did it four times in a row and gained experience. You can talk to people for advice, but you have to experience it yourself and grow with disappointments like last year.”
Degenkolb relied on teammates like American Chad Haga in the race’s early hours. In the final, when the clock showed six hours of racing, he had world time trial bronze medalist Tom Dumoulin for support. Degenkolb took care of the rest himself with a long sprint on Via Roma in Sanremo’s center.
Degenkolb will have only a few days to celebrate his win with his wife Laura and their three-month-old son Leo Robert, who was sleeping when dad won. Next, he races in Belgium: E3 Harelbeke on Friday and with the No. 1 on his back, Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. He continues in Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“I have a hard four weeks in front of me,” he said. “I’m mentally ready for it and my shape is good.”