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WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — John Degenkolb’s world went from black to podium girls’ kisses in the span of a week.
Seven days ago on the Italian Riviera, the Giant-Shimano captain could only look on in horror at the foot of the Poggio when he saw a puncture torpedo his chances at Milano-Sanremo.
On Sunday, Degenkolb danced through a crash-marred finale to shoot past Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and win Gent-Wevelgem.
“Last Sunday, I had the most disappointing day of my cycling career,” Degenkolb said in a press conference. “Today, everything went 100 percent better for me than last week. I am very happy to win this race.”
His podium celebration in springlike Wevelgem was in sharp contrast to the cold and rain last weekend, when an on-form Degenkolb felt his tire go flat as he approached the decisive Poggio climb. And his chances of winning the Italian monument deflated with it.
“It’s been a long time since I was sitting on the bike and tears came out of my eyes,” Degenkolb said. “That was such a big disappointment.
“The next two or three days after that were a bitter pill to swallow. You prepare the whole winter for that one race, and you know you have the legs to be there, that you’re strong enough, then something like that happens in the end, that is not your decision.”
While fate turned against him in Italy, the odds played in his favor in the lumpy roads of Belgium.
He made it over two passages up the decisive Kemmelberg climb in good position, and then avoided a string of costly crashes in the final run-in that took out pre-race favorites André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp).
“The final was very hectic. There was a big crash with 8km to go, I just saw Farrar lying there, with his hands protecting his head,” he said. “I could just come through the crash; I was lucky not to crash.
“We had to close a gap. In the end, we could catch back the breakaway, they were strong and holding the gap. Koen de Kort dropped me on Sagan’s wheel, and he went early, so I was able to come around him. Everything went right today.”
It was the biggest win of Degenkolb’s budding classics career, and he hopes it is only the first of many Belgian one-day victories.
At 25, Degenkolb is part of a new generation of riders nipping at the heels of established cobble stars like Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing).
Degenkolb said he’s not yet on the same level as Sagan or Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin), whom he singled out as the favorites for next Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).
“You cannot compare today to Flanders. Today, the breakaway went away early, but it was perfect training for next week, with a hard race and a difficult finish. The way Fabian came back at Harelbeke shows just how good he is,” Degenkolb said.
“I’m going to go 100 percent on Sunday. It’s the Ronde, it’s one of the biggest races in the world. I’d love to make a good result there. I am not a favorite yet.”
Giant-Shimano continues to produce impressive results across the calendar, with 15 wins from five different riders since February.
“This team is more than just John and Marcel [Kittel],” Degenkolb said. “We are winning more races, with more riders. It’s exciting to see the work paying off.”
German ace Kittel was nowhere near the start line Sunday in Deinze. Despite emerging as one of the top sprinters in the peloton, the Belgian classics belong to Degenkolb.
Kittel is the team’s main player during the sprint stages, and he will race in this week’s Three Days of De Panne, but won’t start any of the spring classics beyond trying to defend his title at Scheldeprijs.
That works out well for Degenkolb, who gets a chance to shine in the northern classics before slipping into a supporter’s role in Kittel’s train during the sprint stages at the grand tours.
“People always say Degenkolb is a sprinter, but I am not a pure sprinter. I am a classics rider who can make a good sprint,” he said. “It has to be hard for me to have a chance to win a sprint.”
Degenkolb will face some hard races in the coming days, with Flanders up next on Sunday. Which way will Lady Luck shine? Version Milano-Sanremo or Gent-Wevelgem?