For a professional cyclist, there’s nothing worse than having to watch the biggest race of the year from the couch. Twelve months ago, John Degenkolb was in that position, relegated to being a fan — and, frankly, lucky to be alive — during the entire 2016 classics season. He was recovering from major injuries sustained in a head-on crash (alongside five of his teammates) with an oncoming car driving in the wrong lane at a training camp in Spain. A year later, the only visible indication of his injuries is a plastic splint on his left index finger, which was nearly severed in the January 2016 crash.
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Today, the 28-year-old is keen to make up for lost time and reclaim his crown as the classics king, having won Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015. When VeloNews sat down with the German superstar at his team’s winter training camp, it was clear he had turned the page and was ready to confirm his “Degen-kobble” moniker.
VeloNews: Your 2016 season was short-circuited after that horrific training crash. Do you have any fears about returning to the same area this winter?
John Degenkolb: No. For me, it was not even a training accident. It was a traffic accident that could happen anywhere, anytime. For me, I am focused on a new team and a new season, and I enjoy this moment right now. This is a big step in my career. I can leave 2016 behind me.
VN: Do you have any lingering side effects that impair your ability to race?
JD: I am fully recovered from the crash. I am in very good hands, with doctors and physical therapists from within the team and at home. That was one of the positive side effects of the accident: I pay even more attention to smaller details compared to what [I did] before. You take nothing for granted.
VN: Did you watch the classics on TV, or was it too much to endure?
JD: I watched every race, especially for experience. When you accept the situation, and admit that you will not be there … I am also a fan of these races, so I enjoyed watching them — even though it was painful in my heart to not be there.
VN: After missing the spring classics, you returned to the Tour de France and won two races later in the season. Did those victories mean something special after all you had been through?
JD: For me, it was crucial to find the form to win races again. If you start with such a big disadvantage [at the start of] a season, you are always running behind the pack, always having to try to catch up. That was a hard time for me. I am very eager, I always want to compete, and I like to win. If you are not able to do that, it feels weird. In the end, it turned out great, and it was the highlight of the year to win those two races.
VN: Did you ever have any doubts that you could return?
JD: No, from the beginning, I never had doubts about the possibility of being a professional bike racer again. I realized very quickly that the classics season wouldn’t be happening, and that was not nice. How many classics seasons do you have in your career? I missed one, and now the big goal is come back to win on the holy ground in Belgium. The team is supporting me well in this, and we’re preparing well.
VN: This team was long the home of Fabian Cancellara. Do you feel any pressure to fill his shoes?
JD: Ah, that is one of the most famous questions! From my [point of view], I have always had pressure. And I absolutely respect what Fabian has done in the past, and it’s a big motivation to try to be as successful as he was. On the other hand, I am proud of what I have achieved in the past. I have already won two monuments, so I do not have to hide behind anything.
VN: Cancellara is now gone and Tom Boonen retires after Roubaix. How will their absence change the classics?
JD: Those two were inspirations to me. I never raced on the same team with them, but if you watch them, you can see a lot of the things they do, the tactics they are [using.] They made their own race in the past, and it will be a different race when those two are gone in the future. That doesn’t mean it will be easier, it’s just different — and maybe it’s even harder. In the past, you could focus on those two, because the pressure was on them to make the race. They were really consistent, and it’s a big compliment to them that they were successful for so many years.
VN: What did the Milano-Sanremo/Paris-Roubaix double victory in 2015 mean for you?
JD: For me it was really a breakthrough. It was a dream come true — the hard work in the past really paid off. It was a very special emotion to win something you’ve worked your entire life for. Now others, and myself, expect to do it again. The classics are like a casino. You can prepare perfectly, have the best fitness, and still not win the race. One little mistake and you are out. It’s a big mental fight to be strong.
VN: Will you now also target the Tour of Flanders?
JD: I don’t go into the classics season only focusing on Flanders. All the other races are also important. The focus will be like 2015: to start in top shape in Sanremo and still be in good shape for Roubaix.
VN: Are the Ardennes simply too hilly for you?
JD: I think they’re too hard for me. Amstel Gold Race would be possible, but with Flanders and Roubaix, that’s a really tough block. I’m not sure it is manageable to still be there in [good enough] shape to compete against the other guys who are coming in fresh for the Ardennes.
VN: There is a new generation taking over the classics. Do you see many rivals in the future?
JD: It’s a great feeling and a big honor to be among those names. It’s also a big dream to play that role in the game, because that is what I was working for. The ultimate goal is to be the best classics rider of my generation. Maybe next year or the year after there will be a new guy who comes up that no one has talked about. That is normal.
VN: And then there is Peter Sagan.
JD: There will always be Sagan; he is the guy to beat in every race. When you look at the past few years, Peter is the most outstanding rider right now. Beatable? In both monuments I won — and we’re not talking five or 10 years ago, it was two years ago — he was there and I beat him. Everyone is beatable. No one is unbeatable. Cycling is up and down, the sun is not always shining. You have to keep fighting.