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ALTEA, Spain (VN) — John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) wants to make one thing very clear: he is not a sprinter.
At least not what he characterizes as a “pure sprinter.” That might sound odd coming from a rider who won no less than five sprints during the 2012 Vuelta a España, but the 25-year-old German knows himself.
“When it’s a flat, fast sprint, when everyone is fresh to the line, I know I cannot beat the top sprinters. I am not as fast,” Degenkolb told VeloNews. “When it’s a hard race; when everyone is like this (Degenkolb pushes his thumb under his jaw), then I have a good chance to win.”
When he’s up against riders like Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) or André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), he will gladly line up behind his prodigious teammate and compatriot Marcel Kittel, who confirmed his status as a sprinter with four Tour de France stage wins in 2013.
Over more challenging terrain, however, Degenkolb moves front and center. That’s when his top-end finishing speed is most lethal, as proved by a stage win at the 2013 Giro d’Italia, and a second in stage 7 in the Tour last summer. And who beat him there? Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
“There is no other rider in the bunch more similar to me than Sagan,” Degenkolb said. “I never said I was a pure sprinter. I’m strong when it’s a hard course, then I can win against the sprinters.”
Some would expect friction between Degenkolb and the emergence of Kittel, but he insists that’s far from the case.
Degenkolb said he’s happy to work as part of Kittel’s train in the mass sprints, and then hunt for his own chances when a hard course presents itself. And there’s something else that motivates him even more: the classics.
“Marcel is a big sprinter, and he’s proven he can win big races, so I have no problem with that role. If there are chances for me, then I will take them, but Marcel is our man for the sprints,” he continued. “I see my future in the classics, and in the hard races.”
Degenkolb said without hesitation he’d take winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) over a Tour stage win. In his mind, there’s no question about which is more important.
“I’d love to win a monument some day,” he continued. “I can combine sprinting and the classics right now, and gain more experience in races like Flanders and Roubaix. Those are the races that motivate me.”
Degenkolb and Sagan are part of a new generation of riders challenging the established kings of the cobbles, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing).
Degenkolb’s already shown glimpses that he could be poised for big things in the northern classics. He punched into the top-10 at Flanders last year with a ninth-place result, and then won a treble of one-day races after the Tour, with the Vattenfall Cyclassics and doubled at Paris-Bourges and Paris-Tours to close out the season.
For 2014, Degenkolb will be looking to raise the bar across the classics, with a France-heavy racing schedule that includes GP la Marseillaise, Etoile de Bèsseges, and Tour Méditerranéen before Paris-Nice. Then it’s headlong straight into the northern classics, with a heavy schedule from Milano-Sanremo to Paris-Roubaix.
“Last year was not perfect for the spring. I was top-10 at Flanders, but things did not go well as Sanremo or Roubaix,” he said. “I hope to go better this year, but I also know it’s a question of gaining experience in these races.”
Degenkolb expects future showdowns with Sagan, who will prove to be his top nemesis in both the classics and in the hilly, challenging transition stages at the Tour.
“I am glad riders like [Boonen and Cancellara] are still at the front in the classics. I can use that to my advantage, and that means no one is paying much attention to me,” he said. “And Sagan? I already knew him well when we raced as juniors. I expect that we will be fighting for the rest of our careers.”
Like Kittel, he’s under contract with Argos through 2016. Unlike Kittel, Degenkolb knows he will not be winning down the Champs-Élysées. Riding onto the velodrome in Roubaix with a small group, however, is quite another scenario.
“It would be a dream to race onto the velodrome with Boonen and Cancellara,” he said with a smile, without giving away how he thinks the race would end.