When John Degenkolb thrust his arms in the air after crossing the line and taking the victory in stage nine at the Tour de France Sunday, it was not the biggest win of his career, but perhaps the most important.
It has been three years of struggle to reach the top again after a life-threatening and nearly career-ending accident, and Degenkolb took an emotional victory after a thrilling stage nine that included 15 cobblestone sectors of his familiar terrain.
“Pure happiness,” answered Degenkolb when asked what was going through his mind when he had won. “I was chasing this victory for so long, and it’s really hard to describe. It was a really hard fight the whole day. It’s also a victory of the team. We really had a plan to stay out for the trouble all the time and it really worked out really well. It’s unbelievable.”
A well-prepared Trek-Segafredo avoided misfortune that so often has plagued the team in the past and rode the stage to perfection.
In the closing kilometers, the team had Jasper Stuyven, John Degenkolb, Toms Skujins and Bauke Mollema in the vastly reduced peloton.
While other GC contenders fought off crashes and punctures, some losing crucial time, Bauke Mollema avoided any drastic incident, thanks to a well-laid plan and dedicated teammates. When Bauke did puncture, Michael Gogl was there to hand him his bike, and Mollema was back in the peloton in a flash.
If there’s a man of the match in cycling, it would most likely go to Toms Skujins, who had the job to watch over Mollema all day leaving Jasper Stuyven and John Degenkolb able to go for the win.
With Mollema safe in the leading peloton in the closing kilometers, Stuyven was the first to mark an attack of Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). Later it was Stuyven who laid down his own attack into sector four, softening up the competition, and when Van Avermaet went again in sector two, John Degenkolb was ready.
Three riders emerged in the lead after the penultimate cobblestone sector: the yellow jersey, Degenkolb and Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors).
The trio gained time quickly, and soon it was apparent that they would be fighting out the stage win. On paper, Degenkolb was the quickest. But we all know that hardly matters out on the road – Degenkolb had plenty of “almosts” in the last two years and plenty of demons to rid.
Could he do it?
Degenkolb assumed the lead in the last kilometer, which is never a good idea for most, but he knew what everyone watching did not: “I was focusing on the race, trying to stay calm. I felt good and then [in the sprint] you don’t have to think,” he said afterward.
Leading out the sprint, it was no contest: Degenkolb easily. In the last few years, he had never stopped believing. Today he showed why.
“In relation to what has happened in the last two years, this is pretty unbelievable. So many people said he’s done, he’s over, he will never come back. I am so happy to show all these guys who didn’t believe me that I am still there, I am still alive. I think that’s also what I took out of this accident: that you have to be happy after such a horrible crash that you are still alive, you’re still there. I was fighting my way back, and I am so proud.”
The accident, then injuries, sickness, and last year a family friend perishing, only motivated Degenkolb more. On Sunday he accomplished his most significant win of his career.
“This is a very big victory, since a very long time,” continued an emotional Degenkolb. “I have been through a lot of things in the past, and it was such a hard time. I want to dedicate this victory to one of my best friends who passed away last winter. This was really something for him because I said no, I am not done. I have to make at least one really big victory him, he was like my second Father.”
“It’s so great now to be on the highest level again. There’s no way to make it more dramatic, more fantastic, than winning a stage like today. It can’t get better than this.”
Peter Sagan stretches points lead at hellish Tour de France stage to Roubaix
It was to be chaos on the cobblestones at the Tour de France today, and with the last five Paris-Roubaix winners in the peloton, the recreation of the Queen of the Classics was bound to be one of the most exciting days of the whole race. With experienced Classics riders mixing with GC riders who would simply want to stay safe, the day was a spectacular event filled with attacking riding and lots of crashes. Staying safe throughout, UCI World Champion, Peter Sagan, took fifth spot to add to his points total. With the whole BORA-hansgrohe team riding hard to bring him back into contention after being caught up in two crashes, Rafał Majka finished with the bunch, moving from eighth to sixth in the overall standings ahead of the first – and richly-deserved – rest day.
Photo © BORA – hansgrohe / Bettiniphoto