NEVER AWAY

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

Procycling - - THE BIG INTERVIEW - Writer So­phie Hur­com Por­traits Julien Payette-Tessier

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

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