John De­genkolb is a !ery char­ac­ter in a race, but o" the bike he’s very di"er­ent. Ger­man jour­nal­ist Fe­lix Mat­tis ex­plains how he is seen by the fans back home

Procycling - - THE BIG INTERVIEW - Writer Fe­lix Mat­tis Im­age Kristof Ra­mon

When John De­genkolb re­turned to Calpe in De­cem­ber 2016, it was the first time he had been back to the scene of his hor­rific train­ing crash 11 months ear­lier. “I’m glad it’s fi­nally the last time I have to talk about the crash,” John De­genkolb said at the time. But set­backs in the fol­low­ing 18 months put the topic back on the ta­ble time and again. With his first Tour de France stage vic­tory in Roubaix, that chap­ter of his life is fi­nally closed and the fo­cus can re­turn to the per­son and rider he is, in­stead of the ac­ci­dent he had. There is much more to De­genkolb than his well-doc­u­mented near-death ex­pe­ri­ence. The 29-year-old might even be the per­fect ex­am­ple to ex­plain why peo­ple sym­pa­thise with an ath­lete they have never met in per­son. In many ways, he’s a star with whom fans find it easy to iden­tify. He’s an emo­tional rider with a hot pas­sion for the pure beauty of cy­cling and its tra­di­tions. He is part of a tight fam­ily and he ex­hibits his love for his kids openly. And he loves what men love: foot­ball, mo­tor­bikes and rock and roll.

De­genkolb is not one of those pro­fes­sion­als who seems to have been ironed smooth by me­dia de­part­ments and PR train­ing. He uses his per­sonal vo­cab­u­lary in­stead of the bor­ing lex­i­con of oth­ers, whose only ob­jec­tive is to avoid say­ing some­thing bad. And so De­genkolb come across as au­then­tic, and au­then­tic­ity is the best form of PR. When he speaks about his sport and his pas­sion – the hard races of the spring – there’s a glint in his eye. “Rid­ing on cob­ble­stones, sh*t, it’s hard. But it re­ally fas­ci­nates me,” he says. He will glo­rify the races, but only so much; they still sound real. Hip-hop artists could learn from him on that mat­ter.

The key to De­genkolb might be as sim­ple as that: he’s just real. Last month, the Ger­man be­came the first am­bas­sador of ‘Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix’, the as­so­ci­a­tion of vol­un­teers who main­tain the pavé sec­tors of the Queen of Clas­sics and prevent them from be­ing mod­ernised. Les Amis and De­genkolb are both driven by love for the unique race. De­genkolb grew up with a pas­sion for the Clas­sics, which was some­thing he shared with his fa­ther, Frank. “I re­mem­ber how we would al­ways watch San Remo or Roubaix or Flan­ders sit­ting on the couch to­gether,” De­genkolb once re­flected on his child­hood.

At the age of seven, Frank took John to his first bike race. From then on, the di­rec­tion was clear. His fam­ily’s sup­port

was un­stint­ing. One of the first peo­ple he hugged when he won in Roubaix in July was his fa­ther. Both were in tears. “That was for Jörg,” De­genkolb said, as he ded­i­cated the win to his fa­ther’s best friend, who died a year ago.

Close fam­ily is one of De­genkolb’s defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics. Two months be­fore he won Mi­lan-San Remo in 2015 he be­came a fa­ther for the first time; in Au­gust 2017 his sec­ond child was born; Leo Robert and Paula surely al­ready feel the pas­sion for cy­cling that’s in their fam­ily’s DNA – De­genkolb’s wife, Laura, is the daugh­ter of the for­mer na­tional track coach, Robert Lange, who died af­ter a train­ing ac­ci­dent in Mal­lorca in 2000. De­genkolb’s son, Leo Robert, al­ready has lit­tle race han­dle­bars on his bal­ance bike. He was in Roubaix when his fa­ther won there in 2015, aged three months, breath­ing the air of the velo­drome.

Some­times, when

De­genkolb has a re­cov­ery ride planned, he loads his kids into a trailer and takes them out. He lives in a new home in Oberursel, which is on the edge of Frank­furt and close to the Taunus hill. The house is al­most on the course of the Ger­man World­Tour race, EschbornFrank­furt, and he has a very close re­la­tion­ship to it: his wife has worked for the or­gan­i­sa­tion for years. To­gether, they cre­ated “Dege Bam­bini Races” for kids on bal­ance bikes.

De­genkolb has lived in the Frank­furt area for a long time now, even though he was born in Gera, Thuringia, and raised in Weißen­burg, Bavaria. He is a sea­son ticket holder for the Ein­tra­cht Frank­furt foot­ball team and goes when­ever he can get to­gether with his friends such as Bo­raHans­grohe di­recteur sportif, Jens Zemke. The pas­sion for two wheels goes be­yond cy­cling as he owns a café racer, a cus­tom­made mo­tor bike which he built with the help of friends.

Foot­ball, the stylish bike, leather jack­ets and a good col­lec­tion of LPs – it’s all very rock and roll and fits the rough, tra­di­tional char­ac­ter of the Clas­sics. If De­genkolb wasn’t a rider, he might well be camp­ing with his mo­tor­bike at Car­refour de l’Ar­bre in early April.

De­genkolb is also very emo­tional and am­bi­tious. “John, you are not al­lowed to lose,” Patrick Moster, his na­tional coach in the U23 cat­e­gory, once said to him. In an in­ter­view with Cy­cling­ De­genkolb ad­mit­ted that Moster knows him best. “This trait might have blocked me men­tally some­times, but it also drove me.” With age, he has be­come a lit­tle calmer, but not en­tirely. Re­call a scene from the 2016 World Cham­pi­onships in Qatar, when he was so frus­trated with the Bel­gian tac­tics he sprayed his bidon in Jens De­buss­chere’s face. It was not right and De­genkolb was re­morse­ful af­ter­wards.

Af­ter school, De­genkolb started po­lice train­ing in Thuringia and be­came an of­fi­cer, whilst he was rid­ing for the Thüringer En­ergie Team, the de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme for U23 cy­clists in the re­gion.

Foot­ball, the stylish bike, leather jack­ets and LPs. It’s all very rock ‘ n’ roll and its the rough char­ac­ter of the Clas­sics

The team was run by

Jörg Werner, who also or­gan­ised the in­ter­na­tional es­poirs’ stage race, Thürin­gen-Rund­fahrt. He had a big im­pact on the ca­reers of De­genkolb, Mar­cel Kit­tel, Tony Mar­tin, Max­i­m­il­ian Schachmann and many more – and even though his team and the race col­lapsed when the fund­ing fell away, he be­came their man­ager and brought them all into the World­Tour.

De­genkolb got a con­tract at HTC-High Road for 2011 and moved on to Ar­gosShi­mano, later Gi­ant-Alpecin, where Mat­tias Reck be­came his coach. In 2015, De­genkolb and Werner de­cided to split, and since then it is Caleb Fairly, his for­mer Gi­ant-Alpecin team-mate, who ne­go­ti­ates con­tracts on his be­half. Pan­tera Rosa, a Frank­furt com­mu­ni­ca­tions agency, helps with the rest. In 2017, De­genkolb moved to Trek-Se­gafredo and took Reck with him. The Swede seems to give De­genkolb the free­dom to be him­self. From time to time he loves to go moun­tain bik­ing with Tim Böhme, a re­cently-re­tired MTB pro.

On 15 July, when De­genkolb had flown from Lille to Aix-les-Bains in the Alps, he fin­ished the vic­tory cel­e­bra­tion din­ner with his team in the rest day ho­tel, the Villa Mar­lioz. When all the other rid­ers and staff had re­tired to their rooms, the 29-year-old sat in the lobby hap­pily ab­sorbed in his fam­ily, who had flown in to meet him. A cou­ple of hours ear­lier he leaned in and told me: “If I have learned one thing from this hard time,” he said as he fi­nally shut the door on two dif­fi­cult years, “it’s to en­joy the good things even more.”

Win­ning stage 2 of the Dauphiné in 2011, his irst year with HTC

De­genkolb greets his fam­ily af­ter win­ning the 2015 Paris- Roubaix

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