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John Degenkolb: Cafe Racer

Josh Cunningham
12 Jul 2016

After a horrific crash, John Degenkolb talks to Cyclist about recovery, what keeps him going, and his love for another kind of two-wheeler.

It’s Monday morning and I’m sitting in a small coffee shop in Oberursel, a suburb of Frankfurt in Germany. Like many people across the city, I’m preparing for a meeting.

To the south, a clutch of shimmering skyscrapers marks the location of Frankfurt’s financial district, where yesterday the glass façades reflected the passage of a peloton of pro cyclists racing in the Rund um den Finanzplatz Frankfurt. By now the riders and team cars have moved on to the next stop on the UCI Europe Tour, the finish gantry and barriers have been dismantled, and the city has returned to the regularity of a Monday morning.

While all that remains is a finish line painted on the road, the event’s significance is that it saw the return to competitive cycling of a Frankfurt local, a rider whose name is painted indelibly into history by his wins at both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015.

Tour de France 2018: John Degenkolb wins Stage 9 on the cobbles of Roubaix

John Degenkolb

As I stare through the cafe window at the people going about their morning business, I notice a character strolling slowly down the middle of the road whose image is at odds with those around him. A pair of dark sunglasses hides his face beneath a mop of unruly hair. A battered leather jacket hangs on his broad shoulders and his hand clutches a round motorcycle helmet. His other hand is noticeable for the blue splint strapped to his index finger. He looks like he’s looking for someone. 

It takes me a moment to realise that the person this slightly disheveled-looking biker dude is looking for is me. And his name is John Degenkolb.

The infamous crash

‘Hi, I’m John,’ he says unassumingly as he joins me at the table. I watch as he hangs his jacket over the back of his chair, then wearily slumps down into it as the waitress arrives with his cappuccino.

‘Yeah, I’m still pretty tired after yesterday, but that’s quite normal,’ he admits with a knowing smile, the race having been his first since the Road Race World Championships in October. ‘It was a hard race, but it’s nice to have the taste of blood in my mouth again.’ The same smile again spreads below the unkempt moustache that Degenkolb has become synonymous with, before his raised cup of cappuccino covers it back up again. 

Degenkolb won the Rund um den Finanzplatz Frankfurt in his first year as a professional in 2011, racing for HTC-Highroad, but five years on his race was dedicated to domestique work, and he didn’t make it to the finish. 

If anything, though, simply making the start line this year was the greater achievement after the terrible accident that befell Degenkolb and five of his Giant-Alpecin teammates in January while on a training ride in Alicante, Spain. He sustained injuries to his left arm and hand – the purple scars of which are still clear to see – that would rule him out for the first half of the season, and Frankfurt marked his return to the peloton. 

John Degenkolb

‘It was a total coincidence that I was ready to race again on the same weekend as Frankfurt,’ he says. ‘After the accident there was pretty much nothing we could plan because it was dependent on so many things regarding my recovery. Nobody could have predicted how or when I would be ready to race again, but it’s nice that it was Frankfurt in the end.’

I ask him what he remembers from the crash and the smile dissolves from his face as he recalls the incident. 

‘There was no time to think. In the moment, just before the crash, we did all we could to avoid it, but there was just no space.’ 

The six Giant-Alpecin riders had been riding in a group, when a driver – ‘a British car driver’ Degenkolb points out – appeared in front of them on the wrong side of the road. 

‘Instinctively your mind tells you to go to the left, but in that situation it would have been better for us to go to the right, because when the driver woke up and thought, “Oh shit, I’m on the wrong side,” she just drove straight into us. 

‘After an incident like that you are completely in shock. I saw my finger, saw that it was half off. I saw a lot of blood, but I didn’t have any pain – that came later on. The first reaction is always to try to get up and move your body, but the scary thing was that there were six guys that got knocked down and we were all staying down. That showed how big the impact was.’ 

Degenkolb stares into empty space as he replays the scene in his mind. Then his eyes move up to make contact with mine before he continues: ‘I’m really grateful that nothing more happened. It’s not that nothing happened, but it could have been much worse.’

The road back

John Degenkolb

The recovery process for Degenkolb is ongoing. His finger remains in a splint and he is still receiving specialist treatment while getting back into racing. The hardest part, he tells me, was the beginning: ‘You don’t know what’s going on, you don’t know how long it will be until you can walk again, move without pain, sleep without pain. I would wake up in the middle of the night and just be hoping that it was six o’clock so that I could get up.’

Physical pain aside, the eventual length of Degenkolb’s recovery meant that the Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix winner of last year had to watch helplessly from the sidelines as his rivals battled over Monument glory this spring. I’m curious to know how he remains positive during such a demotivating time, and he responds that the trick is not to look back on what has been, but forward to what lies ahead of him.

‘I’m a racer,’ he says with a smile. ‘The feeling of nervousness, the hectic nature of bike racing… maybe addiction is too big a word, but I don’t know. I like to measure myself against other riders, and against my own performances from race to race. Especially the one-day races – for me they’re the height of my profession. You have one chance. One day. And unless you perform perfectly, you have to wait another year.’

Success breeds success

Degenkolb’s increasingly precise execution of these one-day chances, after previously having won Paris-Tours in 2013 and Gent-Wevelgem in 2014, led to his 2015 annus mirabilis, which cemented his name as one of the biggest in the sport today. Indeed, along with Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin and Andre Greipel, Degenkolb finds himself at the forefront of a cycling resurgence in Germany that will see the 2017 Tour Grand Départ hosted by Düsseldorf and the Deutschland Tour re-established on the calendar – events that follow the return of live Tour de France coverage to German television last year. 

John Degenkolb

‘It makes me proud to have this position now, but it’s a big responsibility,’ Degenkolb says of his role in the movement. ‘There was a time when we had three WorldTour teams [Milram, T-Mobile and Gerolsteiner – then of the ProTour]. Now we only have one, but at least we do have a German licence [his own Giant-Alpecin team], and Bora [Bora-Argon, the German-registered Pro Continental team] are also aiming for bigger and better things. It’s really nice to be able to play a role in all of it.’

When Degenkolb himself was an aspiring rider, coming up through the ranks with Thüringer Energie – an amateur team he shared with Marcel Kittel, and where Tony Martin also spent his fledgling years – the situation was a little more desperate. The demise of T-Mobile, Gerolsteiner and Milram was the result of numerous doping scandals involving German riders, and a subsequent lack of sponsor investment that left radsport in ruins. But it was perhaps this very uncertainty that led Degenkolb to choose his eventual path into cycling. 

‘I was born in East Germany in a town called Gera, and grew up in West Germany after my parents moved to Bayern [Bavaria] when I was four,’ Degenkolb, now 27, remembers. ‘My father was a cyclist and I started cycling when we lived in Bayern. Then after I finished school we decided to find something that would allow me to race as well as have an education.’

That ‘something’, which would provide a potential career alternative to racing in the unstable climate of German cycling, turned out to be the police force. Enrolling onto a police training programme back in his home town of Gera enabled the 17-year-old Degenkolb to pursue his dream of professional cycling alongside a more predictable profession.

‘It was a great choice,’ he remarks. ‘I was 17, out on my own, out of my parents’ place and living my own life. I suppose it developed me as a person. 

‘I finished the education, and now I’m kind of… not working as a policeman,’ he sniggers. ‘But I have the ability to go back if I want to. They told me that I can do my job – do the cycling thing – and if I want to go back then it’s a possibility. So that’s kind of a back-up plan.’

John Degenkolb

Rather than a hi-vis jacket and chequerboard cap, though, Degenkolb’s first professional uniform was that of the HTC-Highroad team, where he won six races in his 2011 debut season, in what he describes as ‘a perfect environment in which to turn professional’. Why? ‘They showed me that if there’s a chance to win something, then you have to go for it. Even if you don’t feel great and you think you don’t have good legs, you can’t miss the opportunity – not only for the result but for the feeling. If you just say, “Ah, today is not my day, I’ll try next time”, then you’ve already cracked mentally. No, if there is a chance then you have to go for it. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.’

It was the outlook of that HTC group that Degenkolb wanted to find when the team disbanded after only his first year there, and he thinks Giant-Alpecin [then called Argos-Shimano] provided that fit. 

‘It’s the atmosphere between the riders,’ he says. ‘The philosophy of the team is “all for one and one for all”, which we also had at HTC. Everyone is willing to work for each other because you know that if one day you work really hard for rider X, on another day he will work for you.’

Time to ride

Between learning his trade as a 17-year-old at Thüringer Energie, proving it at HTC, and refining it at Giant-Alpecin, it is not just Degenkolb’s racing ability and engine that matured. He found his way to Frankfurt to live with wife Laura in her hometown, before heading out into the sticks.

John Degenkolb

‘Before, we were living right in the centre, really close to the finish line from yesterday,’ he says. ‘It was great there, with the contrast between the bars, restaurants and shopping centres compared to training rides in the hills. Here in Oberursel we’re closer to the mountains, which is better for training, and also for my son who’s one and a half now.’

It’s been said before that parenthood can change a rider’s attitude, but the birth of Degenkolb junior has done nothing of the sort in the eyes of his father. ‘It doesn’t change much in terms of racing, but it does change your perspective on the world. You see everything from a different view, and that’s amazing, but I love racing too much to say, “OK now I have a child, I can’t give it 100% anymore.”’

Tour de France 2018: John Degenkolb wins Stage 9 on the cobbles of Roubaix

The foam at the bottom of our cups has long since begun to crust over, and noticing the time I ask my relaxed companion if he still needs to ride today. 

‘No,’ comes the reply.

‘Oh, did you already go out this morning?’ I ask. 

‘No,’ he repeats again with a shy laugh, but having just ridden his first race in over seven months the day before, a day off surely can’t hurt. 

While pushbikes may be off the cards, there is little excuse for the leather-clad Degenkolb not to be pursuing his other riding passion on a sunny day like this, and my request to see his motorbike is happily granted. 

‘It’s a cafe racer – a Kawasaki W650,’ he says as the bike, propped on its stand with a casual side-lean entirely befitting of its owner, comes into view down a side street. ‘You know the cafe racer culture? The idea behind it is you throw away everything that isn’t necessary.’

No sooner has the bike been kicked into life than the biker dude from Frankfurt, with a splint on his finger and the rediscovered taste of blood in his mouth, throws his leg over it as if it’s really just two wheels that are a necessity. Whether it’s Roubaix, San Remo or the cafe, as John Degenkolb had said not half an hour before,
‘I’m a racer.’

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