ROUBAIX, France (VN) — John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) spent the winter reliving last year’s Paris-Roubaix. His 2014 second-place haunted him as he trained at altitude and spent evenings watching the highlight reel over and over to see how he might have come out on top.
A year later, he found the answer: attack and make the race unfold on his terms.
On a windy, fast Roubaix on Sunday, it was Degenkolb who was on the move. And the new-found aggression and confidence paid off with a historic Milano-Sanremo-Roubaix double, just the third time in cycling history that the same rider has won both monuments in one season.
“I watched [the video] of Roubaix many times, and thought about what I could have done better. If I would have waited today, probably my result would have not been much better than last year,” Degenkolb said. “I attacked with 10km to go. I felt, ‘This is the moment.’ I felt like I had something left in the tank. It was all or nothing.”
In 2014, the 26-year-old German followed wheels, and was out-gunned when Quick-Step had three riders in a 10-man group, and Degenkolb could only watch as Niki Terpstra powered to victory. He salvaged the day by winning the reduced bunch sprint for second, but being so close only made him want more.
Flash forward one year, and Degenkolb was determined to forge his own destiny on a Sunday that featured Bradley Wiggins’ final race in a Sky jersey. In conditions that were similar to 2014, with a brisk tailwind and dusty cobbles that served up a high-speed race, all the major moves packed into the final hour of racing. Degenkolb was set on not seeing a replay of archrival’s Etixx-Quick-Step’s domination.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), another rider determined to make the race rather than wait, surged clear with Belgian Yves Lampart (Etixx-Quick-Step) in tow with about 11km to go. Degenkolb calmly waited, and then bridged out alone. Eventually, a group of seven settled at the front to challenge for Roubaix’s unique cobblestone trophy. As one of the fastest riders in the pack, Degenkolb made easy work to relegate Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step) to second, with Van Avermaet earning third to match his third at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) last weekend.
“I knew I had to react to every move, and that was the key to success today. I really cannot believe it,” Degenkolb recounted. “On the track, I sprinted fully to the line. I didn’t want to risk, this sprint is something special, if you’ve never done it before, you have no idea what you’re talking about. You try to accelerate, try to go out of saddle, then you realize you legs are like gum.”
Degenkolb had enough to handle the potentially complicated sprint, and roared across the line victorious to add his second monument inside of a month.
“John was too strong,” Stybar said. “In cycling, winning is the only thing that counts. I hope to come next year, or the years after, and fight again for the win. That’s the only thing that counts.”
Van Avermaet, too, knew he was going to be out-gunned by the speedier Degenkolb, and tried a longer attack to catch out the sprinters.
“It’s going to be hard to beat these guys [Kristoff and Degenkolb], because they know they can follow the wheels, and then win in a sprint,” Van Avermaet said. “I was not feeling as good as I was last weekend at Flanders. I was really just hanging on. Roubaix is the hardest race of the year for me. I suffered into the velodrome. I did my best race here today. If you go with Degenkolb to the sprint, he’s hard to beat.”
Degenkolb’s grown into a legitimate classics powerhouse over the past few years. His earlier successes came in bunch sprints, but he was quick to remind journalists going into last season that he doesn’t consider himself a pure sprinter, like his Giant-Alpecin teammate Marcel Kittel. Instead, he prefers to win on tougher finales, out of small groups, and in the long, punishing classics.
He called his move to join start-up Giant-Alpecin in 2011, then a second-division team, the “best decision I’ve ever made.”
“We’ve grown up as a team, and we’ve all worked hard over five years to get here,” he said. “This win is just as much as the team’s as mine, from my trainer, my teammates, to the bus driver. We can all share in this victory.”
In 2014, he was ready to step up, but he punctured at the base of the Poggio, and couldn’t challenge in Milano-Sanremo, but won Gent-Wevelgem, and was second at Roubaix. This year, he won San Remo, roaring past defending champion Kristoff in a perfectly-timed sprint, and then doubled at Roubaix. It’s historic stuff.
He becomes just the second German to win the cobblestoned classic — Josef Fischer won the very first Roubaix in 1896 — and just the third rider to win the San Remo-Roubaix double in the same season.
“Two monuments!” Degenkolb just smiled and shook his head. “This double with MSR and Roubaix is means so much to me. I am just running out of words to describe it. I can relax, lean back, now I will take a couple days to really believe it. You are the winner of Paris-Roubaix. Amazing.”
Amazing, indeed. Degenkolb’s classics season is now over, and he can take a few days to savor the victory.
“I will have to find a sturdy bench in my apartment to put that trophy,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy. It’s a big one.”