John Degenkolb won the blockbuster stage of the Tour de France this summer on the Roubaix pavé. The German tells Procycling how the emotional win changed him and helped him draw a line under a di cult two years
John Degenkolb finally feels free. For two and a half years, he carried the memory of the incident in which he and five of his Giant-Alpecin team-mates were hit head-on by a car on a training ride, like a weight around his neck. It was as heavy as the cobblestone he won at Paris-Roubaix in 2015. The January 2016 crash has defined almost every aspect of Degenkolb’s racing life for the past three seasons. First as he recovered from the injuries of the crash itself, in which his left index finger was almost completely severed. And then as he faced setback after setback when he did return - more crashes, illness and the assumption that he was not the same rider any more, that he would not win another big race.
That all changed this July on the hot and dusty stage 9 of the Tour de France, across the Roubaix cobbles. After years of near misses which preceded his accident, Degenkolb finally won his debut Tour stage on the most anticipated day of this year’s race. It was the big victory he’d been craving since that fateful January day. A chapter had been closed, and the weight he said he’d been carrying around had finally lifted. On camera, straight after the win, he burst into tears of relief and joy. It was the kind of raw and pure emotion that has seldom been seen in recent editions of the Tour.
“There was one big impact on my whole career and from that moment on, I went from one setback to the next. There was always something happening,” a relaxed Degenkolb reflects two months later. We’re sat in Québec City’s grand Château Frontenac, home for four days ahead of the GPs Québec and Montréal. “Since this summer, everything is back to normal. Nothing holds me back. Nothing pulls the brakes. That’s such a nice feeling, that you really can concentrate on the important things.”
There’s more to Degenkolb’s story than the long road back from a crash, however. He prefers to call the Tour win “the end of a struggle period,” rather than the comeback that others had dubbed it, insisting that he never went away. He won a stage at the Arctic Race of Norway three months after returning to racing in 2016, one of six wins in the past three seasons, while during the 2017 Classics campaign, he finished in the top 10 at Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Roubaix.
Yet you can’t help but notice that until now, bar the Tour stage, none of his postcrash wins have had the same prestige as those in his pre-crash era, which included monuments, 10 stages of the Vuelta, a win at the Giro and stage wins at the Dauphiné and Paris-Nice. It has been easy to assume that something was different, that the German had lost his edge, whether it was physical or mental.
But Degenkolb’s results belied a constant stream of bad luck, too. There was the stage 4 crash at the 2017 Tour, when Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish collided – he was collateral damage and he struggled with shoulder pain throughout the rest of the race. A bout of bronchitis forced him to miss last year’s Worlds in Bergen – a lumpy course that suited him to a tee. The same illness returned and ruled him out of this year’s Milan-San Remo and the opening Classics. He then crashed at Paris-Roubaix and injured his knee. That put him on the sidelines for two months and his place in
Trek-Segafredo’s Tour team in jeopardy. “If over one or two years you are not able to win big races then of course you start to struggle and to doubt if… yeah…” Degenkolb explains, before pausing.
“A lot of people were saying I was not able to come back to my old level. At some point you kind of start believing in what people tell you or say about you.”
There was a strange sense of symmetry during the Tour stage, when Degenkolb followed a late attack by Yves Lampaert and Greg Van Avermaet on the penultimate Camphin-en-Pévèle cobbled sector with 17km to go. Coincidentally, the Belgians were the same two riders Degenkolb chased down, from almost exactly the same point, when he won the Roubaix cobblestone in 2015. This time, when Lampaert attacked, Degenkolb jumped across and followed, and the trio quickly established a gap. The peloton, ravaged by crashes from the start of the day, seemed unwilling to chase and Degenkolb knew that if they survived to the line he had a better sprint than his two rivals. After all, he’d already beaten them here before. And when Degenkolb did start his sprint there was no doubt about which rider would cross the line first.
“That was basically like the biggest déjàvu you can have, that we were the same guys on the same parcours,” Degenkolb says. “But those positive memories also helped me to stay calm and trust my capabilities to beat them in the sprint. That really gave me mental strength. If you are up there once with three guys you have to be mentally strong and don’t make mistakes. If for one moment you are not attentive enough then the chance can be gone.”
Degenkolb’s relief at the finish wasn’t just because of the crash, but also for the fact he’d finally won the Tour stage which he had been chasing for years. Since 2013 he’d been in the top five in 14 Tour stages, including six second places. Yet the biggest boost he got that day was not from crossing the line first, but rather for instinctively following the race-winning move. When the time came, Degenkolb found he was able to react and deliver the killer blow.
He knew he was on the right track 24 hours earlier, on stage 8 in Amiens, when he finished fifth in the sprint, bumped up to third when Greipel and Gaviria were relegated. “I really felt that I’m coming back to taking the right decisions in the important moments,” he says. “I had the same feeling when I was in the break in Roubaix. Already I had the big relief, actually, that I’m still the same rider as before. The bigger relief was to be up there, still having this really strong feeling that far into the final.”
“A lot of people were saying I was not able to come back to my old level. You start believing in what people tell you or say about you”
“I could have been in a wheelchair, I could have been dead... You could lose everything. It took me a long time to realise this and be thankful”
After Calpe, Degenkolb didn’t shy away from confronting the trauma, and was racing again only 97 days after the crash. He has always spoken openly about the incident and the challenges he faced returning to racing – he initially had to learn to brake using three fingers – and never sought professional help but rather relied on a close-knit group of friends and family for support. He now admits that in his rush to get back to normal, he only recently processed the seriousness of what happened to him.
“The biggest problem was always that I never came to the feeling that I admitted to myself that I was really happy. That
I was really happy that I only had a few injuries and a fracture, then of course my finger was the big problem,” Degenkolb says, fiddling with the laces on his trainers, the faintest scar still visible on his finger. “I could have been in a wheelchair, I could have been dead, I could have been never walking, riding my bike or whatever. This fact I just took for granted. I never… I just took it like this and was like, ‘Okay, we go on, and in a few weeks or months we will be back racing again’. But it took me almost one and a half years to realise.
“When my friend died [Degenkolb dedicated his Tour win to a family friend who passed away in 2017] and then this accident with Kristina Vogel [German track sprinter Vogel was left paralysed after a training accident], things like this make you realise how dangerous this stupid accident was and how close I was to losing everything. I’m not only talking about riding the bike and being a pro - even if you can’t do this, your life goes on. You could lose everything. It took me a long time to realise this and to be thankful. I think that happened, I don’t know, after this year in the Classics, that I was talking about this openly.”
The 29-year-old also points to the fact that despite cycling being a team sport, when a rider is out injured they can be isolated and forced to deal with their recovery alone. Footballers, he says, can go to the training ground and use the same facilities as their team-mates, even if they’re not playing; they feel part of the team and can take moral support from those around them. But cycling teams have no single base. Degenkolb, for example, lives in Oberursel, Germany, while Koen de Kort, one of his closest friends and a teammate, lives in Andorra.
“You have your family and a handful of people who are really close to you, and without them it would have been possible to lose the trust and the goal to come back. It’s really important to have people to rely on,” he says. “If you’re injured in cycling you stay home and it can happen that for months you don’t see your team-mates, and that can be difficult.”
In Québec, there’s a sense of calmness about Degenkolb. Ahead of one ride, he cracks jokes with his team-mates, and he brings a shopping bag to our interview, the results of a trip around the old city. The race comes with less of the pressure of summer, and with no Worlds to train for – the Innsbruck course was too mountainous – his goal is to end the season strongly to prepare for 2019. Others are winding down, but he still has 14 days of racing left.
Degenkolb’s strength has always been his versatility. He contests Classics, hilly one-day races and pure sprints. Never was this better exemplified than in his debut season in 2011, when he won twice at the Dauphiné; first on a technical uphill finish, then from a bunch sprint. Sean Kelly once touted Degenkolb as one of the only riders who had the qualities capable of being able to challenge Peter Sagan for the Tour’s green jersey. Degenkolb is quick to point out that he was as proud of his runner-up spot on the Champs-Elysées as he was of his win on the cobbles.
“This victory gives me even more confidence going into the next Classics season,” he says. “I think in the past
I was more looking to it coming to a sprint. I think if I’m in good shape, I won’t hesitate to attack and be there, riding aggressively. Over the years you also get stronger - next year I will be 30. You are getting to the best age for these kind of races, you have many years in the legs. I’m starting to be one of the older guys. Not the oldest, but for sure one of the older guys.”
When he burst onto the cycling scene in 2011, the sport was at an alltime low in Germany after a string of highprofile doping scandals, and Degenkolb is one of a crop of riders, along with his exteam-mate Marcel Kittel, credited with making the sport popular again at home. It’s easy to see why. He’s personable, down to earth and successful – a good poster boy. He jokes that since July, people recognise him more than ever before, despite the fact his two monument wins – he also won Milan-San Remo in 2015 - may eclipse his Tour stage win in prestige.
Life could have been very different for Degenkolb. Before his cycling career took off, he spent four years at a school that combined sports with training and working with the German police. His Tour stage victory may have turned him into a bigger star at home, but underneath he enjoys the simple things in life: spending time with his wife and two young children, collecting vinyl records – his website has a selection of Spotify playlists he’s made – and skiing off-piste when he can. A few years ago, he finally bought his first motorbike after joking that his mother refused to let him get one when he was a teenager.
“I built a bike with a friend. He builds motorbikes and we made a custom bike. It’s something that was really interesting,” he says, before showing us a photo of the beloved café racer on his phone. “I should have done it much earlier because I would have had much more time to ride it, because now with the kids it’s not so easy to ride it very often,” he adds. “I don’t do big tours, but if I go to the physiotherapist or something, sometimes I take the bike. I use it as daily transport.”
The police force, skiing, motorbikes and cycling are all high-risk professions or sports. Is there a part of Degenkolb that enjoys the thrill that comes with this? “I think every cyclist, also maybe every sprinter, likes speed. If you go to a moment where you still can calculate the risk then it’s just really nice,” he says, dismissing the idea he’s an ardent thrill-seeker. “Of course, when you cross the line and go over the limit it’s different – I’m not going really crazy with the bike in the traffic.”
Now he has wins in two monuments and in all three grand tours, what does John Degenkolb still want to achieve? His spring will naturally revolve around the Classics, but after that, where does he want to go?
“I once made a list of what I wanted to achieve in my career and I am still missing two things,” Degenkolb says. “That’s the German championships and the Worlds. These two races I’ve not won, and I’m still hoping to achieve this. I didn’t really think about it any more, but in Giant we were talking about this list quite often, and after the Tour stage win they said, ‘Ah, now you’ve only two things left.’”
With nothing to hold Degenkolb back now, this is the time to do it.
“I once made a list of what I wanted to achieve in my career and I am still missing two things: the German championship and the World Championship title”
Degenkolb has found equilibrium and achieved a career goal since his crashDegenkolb, in the immediate aftermath of his Tour stage win in Roubaix this summer
Degenkolb rues coming fourth in the 2012 Worlds, just a second from a medal