RICHMOND, Virginia (VN) — Germany’s John Degenkolb struggled in the months leading up to this world championship bid. He lacked confidence in those small moments of high-speed poise that define sprint success. His mind was off, perhaps tipped over by a failure to win a stage at the Tour de France. Ignore his palmares, his wins earlier this year at Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix, his rising stock on the sprinter’s market. In this world, where instinct and self-assurance are every bit as vital as power, the lack of confidence affected him.
Confidence, that fickle fellow, so difficult to build and easy to shatter.
Then in an instant, as his arms raised across the final finish line of the Vuelta in the culmination of a three-week-long rise in form, confidence returned. Now, he says, he’s ready for the worlds.
“Sometimes it’s just in this one click, a small moment, that changes a lot in your mental strength,” Degenkolb said. “This little boost, I definitely needed it before the world championships.”
Degenkolb is self-assured, once more. And he should be. He’s in an elite club of versatile fast finishers, a rider who can win sprints out of 50 men or five or be strong enough to go alone. Facing an unpredictable course with nuanced, often confused tactics, he is a heavy favorite.
“I think the best-case scenario is that I am still relaxed, I’m mentally 100 percent focused, I’m in a good group. It doesn’t really matter if its’ a group of 10 guys or 20, 30. I need to do my thing. I need to focus on my race, trust my instincts, and be a racer,” he said.
Richmond is a worlds course built for the Giant-Alpecin rider, a punchy route likely just hard enough to keep the pure sprinters at bay, but not so mountainous as to send his muscled frame off the back.
“We are prepared for everything, for every scenario. That’s a good situation, a very comfortable situation,” he said Thursday evening from his team hotel, on the outskirts of Richmond.
“We will go with plan A in the race,” — that would be Degenkolb himself — “and if something goes wrong or something is not like we expect it to be, then maybe we have a bunch sprint, and André [Greipel] is there. He plays an important role. It’s kind of a backup plan.”
Rain is forecast to fall on the unpredictable course, which Degenkolb said compares to no other race on the calendar. It’s not like the Poggio at Milano-Sanremo, as the final hills are shorter and more numerous. It’s not like the Ronde van Vlaanderen, which spreads out its longer, cobbled climbs. The compact placement of the climbs within each lap, and the long, wide roads in between them, make Richmond unique. The group will accordion with every pass, stretching thin before clumping once again, returning to a slightly smaller size each time.
“I think that the combination of the last three climbs in a really short distance, all close together, in combination with the long distance of the race, those will make a difference,” Degenkolb said. “We will start the sprint full of [lactic] acid.”
And though Germany would happily take a field sprint of almost any size, given the duo of Degenkolb and Greipel, the Tour’s dominant sprinter this year, others will not make it so easy.
“There will be nations, like Spain or Italy or Belgium, that want to take the initiative early. They don’t want to race for the last lap,” Degenkolb said.
Even with national pressure on his shoulders — he’s the undisputed leader of what might be the strongest team in the race — Degenkolb is relaxed. He’s had an astonishing season already, and there is little left to prove.
“In the end, it doesn’t matter what happens on Sunday, this is the best season of my life,” he said. “On my side, there is no pressure. I just want to show again what I’m capable of, and if it’s enough then it’s enough. If not, then I’ll try next year. Or the year after.”