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It’s been a long two years for John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo). The German enjoyed a brilliant 2015 classics campaign, but he has been waylaid by frustrating health issues ever since.
Degenkolb nearly lost a finger in a horrific training crash in early 2016, robbing him of the chance to defend his titles at Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix. With just one win the next year, 2017 did not go to plan either. Then, serious upper respiratory illness forced him to end his season early.
“It started with bronchitis in the Vuelta [a España]. I quit the Vuelta to get healthy again as quick as possible to still make a good last part of the season and be able to do the worlds,” Degenkolb told VeloNews last week in a phone interview.
“We are professional cyclists. Normally, you’d think we know how much rest we need to get healthy again,” he said. “But in this case, most of the time I was racing to be in good shape for the worlds again, and in the end, I started training again too early. I got sick again and it got even worse than before.”
He ended up with a case of pneumonia. Ultimately Degenkolb was hospitalized so doctors could perform extensive tests to search for any underlying problems. That was the end of his season. Fortunately, doctors did not find anything.
Degenkolb attributes the illness to his never-ending quest to get back to 2015 form after the 2016 crash.
“I see it a little bit as a chain reaction from all that happened the last two years. I had the big accident and I was fighting so hard to come back as fast as possible,” he said.
Degenkolb noted that the pressure he was putting on himself to get back to his best felt like someone “standing with a pistol behind him,” telling him what to do. The stress, both physical and mental, put a serious drain on his health.
“I’m one of these guys, the most pressure I have is basically the pressure I put on myself. Sometimes that’s really good … but sometimes it’s not so good,” he admitted.
Ending his 2017 season early, however, may be a blessing in disguise. It gave Degenkolb more time to relax, and then more time to build for 2018. That meant an enjoyable break followed by a serious — but gratifying — training period.
“I really enjoyed the holiday with my family. We went to Morocco and had a good time there and as soon as I went back I got the okay from all the doctors and slowly started training again,” he said. “I like this kind of period where you can have a big variation of what you’re doing, a variation between riding your bike on the road, going on the mountain bike in the forest, going for a jog, going into the gym for some power training.
“It’s never boring, every day it’s something different and most of the days, when you’ve already built up a proper base, I always do two training sessions a day. I have a mate who is a mountain bike professional and I train a lot with him. He also lives in Frankfurt. We train together — I join him in the forest and we go mountain biking, and he joins me on the road.”
The long offseason has Degenkolb feeling fully recovered for the first time in years.
“Finally, I have the feeling that I’m totally in the rhythm again, without any pressure,” he said.
“I feel now already so much better than last year.”
Degenkolb is eager for the European season to get underway, with the classics again his main objectives. A former winner of both Roubaix and Sanremo, Degenkolb says he would love to add a Flanders title to his palmares, but certainly wouldn’t turn down either of the other big springtime races he’s already won. He’s confident in himself and his Trek-Segafredo squad, especially with Jasper Stuyven in the mix.
“He’s [Stuven] able to compete against the strongest, especially when it comes to the pure power to break away or to attack. I think if we play it smart, we both can benefit from each other,” Degenkolb said of his Belgian teammate.
“If he’s in front, he can make a good finish. The other times, I can ride more defensively and benefit from him, and I don’t need to chase. These kinds of strategies are pretty effective in the classics. On the other hand, you can also turn it around and nobody will know who has the more defensive role, who has the more offensive role.”
Degenkolb will put his offseason prep and the team’s tactics to the test soon enough. He plans to get his season underway at the Mallorca Challenge before heading to the Dubai Tour, where he took his lone stage victory of the season last year. From there, it’s on to Paris-Nice and then the classics proper. He says he may even look to add the Amstel Gold Race onto the end of his spring campaign, depending on how he feels after Paris-Roubaix.
Whatever the specifics of his calendar, Degenkolb believes he’s finally back to his best this year after taking a back seat to the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) during the past two difficult seasons.
“I’m confident to compete on the same level,” he said. “The big classics, it’s never coming from nothing. You have to be really good, you have to have done your homework. There’s never a ‘lucky’ winner of these big races. Every year is different. Every year starts from zero. You have to compare yourself again with the big names. I’ve done good work and I’m really confident to be on top again.”