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The defending champion German football team exited this year’s World Cup in ignominy, but the country’s pride returned on Sunday when John Degenkolb scored the most important victory of his career in stage 9 of the Tour de France. Winning a bike race in Roubaix is nothing new for Trek-Segafredo’s 29-year-old German rider, because he found glory at the 2015 Paris–Roubaix classic. But Sunday’s win in a three-way sprint finish over race leader (and last year’s Paris–Roubaix winner) Greg Van Avermaet and current Belgian national champion Yves Lampaert was a far more emotional moment.
“It’s been a long time coming but I never gave up,” Degenkolb said, referring to his laborious comeback from the horrendous January 2016 accident at a training camp in southern Spain. An elderly British tourist, driving on the wrong side of the road, collided head on with Degenkolb and five teammates. Recovery from that crash—he sustained thigh and hand injuries, and the tip of one finger had to be surgically reattached—turned out to be far longer than anyone expected.
“So many people said he’s done, he’s over, he will never come back,” Degenkolb continued. “I am so happy to show all these guys who didn’t believe in 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’re still there. I was fighting my way back and I am so proud. And my wife and kids always gave me the strength to train and work 100 percent to come back.”
He dedicated his victory to the best friend of his father who from the beginning of Degenkolb’s cycling career “was always helping us out, taking us to any race in Europe. Last October, he had a bad accident at work and passed away. He was like my second father. I knew I had to do one more big victory for him. It was very emotional passing the line.”
The enormity of this victory for Degenkolb is emphasized by the fact that he was just hitting his prime in the spring of 2015 with impressive victories in two monuments, Milan–San Remo and Paris–Roubaix, having already won Ghent-Wevelgem in 2014. But after that brilliant season came the training camp accident and more than two years of indifferent results as he worked hard to get back his mojo.
“Last year, I had a decent season, but it was long and hard too, so I took a good break at the end of the year,” he told PELOTON earlier this year. “I stopped earlier and took a longer break. And I think that helped. It was really good for me to shut everything down and start from zero again. I definitely think that this will help give me confidence going into the big races.”
That long winter break certainly helped Degenkolb on Sunday, when the Trek-Segafredo team gave him and his Belgian classics teammate Jasper Stuyven the freedom to go for the stage win while the other team members were there to help their GC leader Bauke Mollema. The Dutchman was the only rider to have a flat tire over the 15 sections of cobblestones, with his Austrian teammate Michael Gogl handing him his bike, while his teammates soon brought him back to the dwindling lead group.
Into the final four sections of pavé, with less than 25 kilometers to go, Trek’s Stuyven first neutralized an attack by Van Avermaet, then made an attack of his own before Van Avermaet went again—this time being joined by Lampaert and Degenkolb. “The last 15 kilometers was like a déjà-vu with the same [riders] as when I won Paris Roubaix,” the German said. “But that helped me believe I could actually win the sprint.”
But the race itself was very different from the 2015 Paris–Roubaix. Degenkolb hadn’t won a major race since then, and with doubt setting in, he needed to prove himself all over again. “It was so nervous and hectic right from the start. There are so many different interests with the different teams here [at the Tour] rather than Roubaix. The biggest thing was to stay out of trouble and to stay up front.”
The Trek rider earlier said that “the best sprints for me come after long, hard racing. And racing over the cobblestones with the crowds is just so intense. But winning [in Roubaix] is just unforgettable. You can even see the goose bumps in the pictures when I crossed the line [in 2015].”
Three years and three months after that triumph, the goose bumps were replaced by tears of emotion. “It’s so great to be on the highest level again,” Degenkolb said. “There’s no way to make it more dramatic, more fantastic, than winning a stage like today. It can’t get any better than this.”