John Degenkolb sounds like he’s in a good place. That shouldn’t be such a surprise, given we’re speaking a few days after his first victory of 2019, at the Tour de la Provence.
However, as just two days after that he was one of twenty or so riders to go down in a crash on the opening stage of the Volta ao Algarve, one might have expected the edge to have been taken off. Just a little.
“I can’t remember having a big crash like this,” Degenkolb says, somewhat matter-of-factly. “It’s been a while since I went down this hard and had so many wounds.”
“I’m okay but it took a long a lot of skin off, mainly on my legs and my arm, and on my back and shoulders.” A mere scratch, then.
Coming in the middle of an important period of intense preparation for the Classics, there was no thought given to withdrawing. After Provence he had gone straight to the Algarve “with the plan to make it a hard week of racing.” Added together the races would give him the better part of two weeks worth of competition: “It’s a very good plan we have this year. Everything fits perfectly so far.”
Despite the unscheduled epidermectomy he is, he says, “in pretty good shape.”
Another explanation for the soaring spirits is the success of a recent crowdfunding campaign, created to save the under-19 Paris-Roubaix. The €10,000 target, which they gave themselves 28 days to hit, was achieved within 24 hours.
The crowdfunder was, he says, “100 per cent my idea.” It was also a money-where-his-mouth-is discharge of duties as the first ambassador for Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix, the volunteers who devote their time to keeping the cobbles race-worthy, if not exactly rider-friendly.
“I read on Twitter that they had problems to finish the budget and I said ‘Man, we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to find that money… Let’s do something great.’”
Degenkolb asked his friend to set it up, and started things off with a €2,500 donation of his own money.
A number of his fellow riders chipped in, including Heinrich Haussler, Tom Dumoulin and Rick Zabel.
Others expressed their support in person:
“A lot of guys congratulated me but there’s nothing to congratulate. I just wanted to help… It came straight from the bottom of my heart.”
As the scene of two of the biggest wins of Degenkolb’s career, the connection to the cobbles runs deep. He claimed his second Monument there in 2015. More than three years separated it from the victory on the second Sunday of last year’s Tour de France, the much-hyped stage 9 from Arras to Roubaix, which featured what some had speculated was an excessive 21.7km of pave. It wasn’t too much for Degenkolb, who broke clear with Greg van Avermaet and Yves Lampert, then beat them both in the finale.
“It was one of the most emotional wins I’ve achieved in my whole career,” he says. “To win in that particular place after chasing this victory for so many years was something special. It couldn’t have been any better. It was like a fairytale.”
There can’t be many fans of cycling unfamiliar with some of the details of the horrific incident that occurred in between, so we won’t go into them. Although he was back racing by summer, the wins did not come as quickly. Degenkolb admits that, after a while, even he began to lose faith in his ability to compete with the best in cycling.
“If so many people around you are doubting if you will ever come back to the same level that you’ve been before then at a certain point, if you go from one setback to the next, you also start believing that your time is over.”
The victory in Roubaix, his first in the WorldTour since the final stage of the 2015 Vuelta, was “a happy end to all the setbacks,” one that “helped me to seriously believe in myself again.”
It was because the cobbles had given him so much that Degenkolb felt the need to give something back. Like the crowdfunder, the ambassadorship came about at his own initiation.
“I met some of [Les Amis] and obviously they saw my passion about this race and about the classics. I said maybe we could do something together.”
Les Amis, says Degenkolb, were “super happy” when he offered to represent them. He had the impression that few of his fellow pros were even aware that they existed before, though many more of them now must be.
The purpose is to spread the word that Paris-Roubaix doesn’t just happen. Without Les Amis the cobbles would likely fall into disrepair, and it is their work which ensures it will be there for generations of riders to come.
“This race means so much to me. I truly believe that we, as riders, have to protect this part of cycling. These races have so much tradition and we can’t let them down.”
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