John Degenkolb’s Day In Hell Was Worth It
4:36 PM EDT on April 10, 2023
When John Degenkolb took the start line at the 2023 Paris–Roubaix, glory in the form of a repeat of his 2015 win seemed unlikely. The affable German hadn't won a bike race since 2020. He'd finished in the top 10 just three times in the last two seasons. His last major result was his first and only Tour de France stage win in 2018, a miraculous victory as Degenkolb had nearly died at the peak of his stardom two years earlier when an elderly car driver mowed through his entire team on a training ride. Degenkolb is 34 now, with his brief moment as the best single-day racer in the peloton almost a decade behind him and with the next generation of superstars now in their primes, winning everything. He did not earn that unlikely glory at Paris–Roubaix, though he was, to me, the rider of the day.
Dutch superstar Mathieu van der Poel won on Sunday, gliding into Roubaix five hours, 28 minutes, and 41 seconds after riding out of Paris, triumphant in his solo victory in the fastest edition of cycling's most iconic one-day race. But Paris–Roubaix hasn't earned its place in cycling lore or the moniker the Hell of the North because it's a springboard for glory; it has done so because it's a temple of suffering. You don't win Paris–Roubaix so much as you endure it better than your counterparts. You fight, and the cobblestones fight you back, and usually they win.
As much as I'll remember the 2023 edition for the best rider of his generation finally earning himself a cobble, I will remember it more for Degenkolb's brutal day in the saddle. Two minutes and 35 seconds after van der Poel celebrated, Degenkolb crossed the line, also alone, in seventh place, hunched over and openly crying. He hugged his wife, sauntered onto the velodrome's infield, curled up into a ball, and began weeping on the turf.
For the first 90-plus percent of the race, Degenkolb was riding perfect. He hit the mythically difficult Trouée d'Arenberg at the front, survived the mile and a half of most adversarial road the peloton will race on all year, and helped force out the final selection. Arenberg never decides the winner—it's too far from the finish—but it does winnow down the pack of hopefuls. Degenkolb passed that test, emerging from the forest in a small, nervous group. Wout van Aert's dominant Jumbo-Visma team suffered the most in Arenberg, losing their second- and third-best riders, while van der Poel's top lieutenant Jasper Philipsen made the move alongside him. Philipsen and van der Poel seized the initiative and attacked their groupmates until only seven could resist their attacks.
Of that septet, Degenkolb looked as lively as anyone. He matched van der Poel's moves, even the ones that put van Aert in trouble. He fought and won positions in the front of the group like a man determined to make it to the velodrome and fight for the win. He raced like someone who is obsessed with the pain of racing on cobbles, because, well, he is. Degenkolb has spoken about how watching Paris–Roubaix as a child got him into bike racing, and after he helped raise the money to keep Paris–Roubaix Jr. going, organizers honored him by naming a sector of the race after him. His 2018 Tour win was a faux-Roubaix stage that featured many of the fabled cobbled sectors. Paris–Roubaix is the lodestar of Degenkolb's career, as unforgiving and painful as it can be. On the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Degenkolb and van der Poel both went for the same gap to Philipsen's right at the same time, which wouldn't have been a problem if Philipsen didn't also drift right. There was only space for two to get through, and Degenkolb smashed to the deck, his race over in an instant. He got on a fresh bike, but his challenge had ended and he knew it. Minutes later, van Aert suffered a flat tire and the race was over with a painful whimper. Nobody saw van der Poel again until the finish.
Degenkolb didn't blame van der Poel or Philipsen for the crash, and they didn't blame themselves either. All three riders echoed the same line: "That's bike racing." When a crumpled Degenkolb rode in alone for his seventh-place finish, the velodrome lit up for him. He had suffered the most, and the fans thanked him for it. Still, no matter how well he acquitted himself, Degenkolb is a competitor and he wanted to win. His outburst of emotion and devastated interview afterwards show how badly he wanted it, and how wrenching it was to lose it all in one second for no reason other than bad luck.
Bike racing, especially at this speed on this terrain, is a lonely, unforgiving sport, and you can spend a decade dreaming of redeeming yourself on the cobbles and a year training for the chance only to have a gap close on you and your day to end. Doors slam shut so quickly. Peter Sagan raced his final Paris–Roubaix on Sunday, crashing out anonymously early in the race. Sagan was the best one-day racer of his generation, a prime cut short without ceremony by the ascendance of MvdP and WvA and an apparently unshakeable case of long COVID. Degenkolb's erstwhile running mate Marcel Kittel established himself as the best sprinter in the world in 2017 when he won five stages at the Tour de France. He won only two more races after that season ended and his career was over within two years.
Degenkolb winning the 2023 Paris–Roubaix would have been the happiest of endings, though him sticking around long enough to fall short ultimately means more to me than the fact he fell short. He's a true bike rider who knows what it means to give your heart to a race that only knows how to break it.
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