In 2015 John Degenkolb became the youngest winner of Paris-Roubaix in almost ten years, hoisting the cobble over his head in the velodrome infield at the age of 26.
Only Fabian Cancellara (2006), Tom Boonen (2005), Frédéric Guesdon (1997) and Eric Vanderaerden (1987) have been younger winners in the last three decades.
Roubaix is a race for old men: over the last 30 editions of the race, two thirds of winners have been aged 30 or more. It is unique amongst Monuments in that over the last 50 years, it has seen no debutant winners.
Experience counts over the fields and tracks of le Nord. But Degenkolb wasn’t short on experience himself: it was his fifth start in the race, having finished his first edition in 19th place in the colours of HTC-Highroad in 2011 at the age of 22.
His 2015 success, which followed a debut win in Milan-Sanremo earlier that year, marked the German out as a prolific future Classics winner. However, Degenkolb is still fighting to get back to top form following horrific injuries sustained in a training camp collision with a car in Calpe in January 2016.
In 2017 he constructed a solid spring campaign, placing seventh in Sanremo, fifth in Gent-Wevelgem, seventh in Flanders and tenth in Roubaix. A big win, it seems, is not far off.
Speaking at the 2017 Rouleur Classic, Degenkolb discusses how experience counts in the Hell of the North and his recovery from rock bottom.
What do you remember about your first Paris-Roubaix in 2011?
I remember a lot! It was very special. I never did the U23 or Junior Roubaix, so for me it was the very first time that I had even raced on these cobblestones. I couldn’t believe it.
At the Tour of Flanders [the previous weekend] when I was frustrated that I had a bad race, one soigneur said: ‘next week everything will be different. You will see, it will be incomparable to anything you have done before in your life.’ And then we did the training there and it was crazy. I couldn’t believe that we were gonna race on those roads.
How did it go when you did have to race on those roads?
You cannot call them roads. It’s unbelievable how bad these sections are, even compared to the worst sections in Flanders, for example. So, that was shocking for me. And then in the race it was just… it felt much easier than I thought.
I had a great bike and setup. On the road I was really pushing hard and it was riding like a tractor. It really did not feel good. But as soon as we went on the cobbles it was smooth and great to ride.
Can you describe that feeling of riding well on the cobbles?
It’s very… satisfying. It’s a satisfying feeling if you just go. It’s a lot about finding your line on the cobbles because some parts are definitely much worse than others. You need to find a good line that prevents you from getting flat tyres.
The key point is that the faster you go, the easier it is. The weaker you get, the more you slow down and the harder it is. You need to have a certain speed in order to enjoy it.
What did you learn in those first editions?
You always make mistakes but the point is you have to make them in order to learn for the next time. Before I won, I was second in the race [in 2014] and I know I hesitated too long in order to jump there behind Niki [Terpstra] when he attacked. In the end he arrived first and I got second.
The next year was the best example: there were two guys in front and I thought, ‘if I don’t now try to jump to them the race is over again like last year’. These things are crucial. Of course you need to have the legs also but it helps a lot if you are confident.
Does that experience matter more than in other Classics?
For sure, it’s the mental experience. It’s the experience of the road, the parcours. If you only do one day of training there, you can’t remember everything. Sometimes the radio doesn’t work so well either, so in order to know all the little details it’s crucial to make your own experiences.
Have you got more to learn about Roubaix, even though you won it?
There is always more to learn, and for sure there is always something that you can go and get better at.
Do you think a neo-pro, or a race debutant, could ever win Paris-Roubaix?
To race the first time and to win there would be very difficult, I cannot imagine it happening. I think Tom Boonen was on the podium in his first year [in 2004] but with him it’s different: he did the juniors and U23 races every year and that gives you experience. And he was probably one of the most talented riders we have ever had in cycling.
Would you rather win another Roubaix or your first ever Tour of Flanders?
Roubaix has a special place in my heart. I think both would be a great feeling! And such a great relief to show the public, and also to show myself, that I am able to do it again. To win a Monument. That’s what I’m looking for, working for, sacrificing for.
To come back from your 2016 crash and prove that 2015 wasn’t a fluke?
Exactly. I’m not afraid of this: I won two Monuments that year and you don’t win Monuments because of luck. You need to have it in yourself. I still have it in myself, and that’s the key fact. I have to believe in myself, work hard for it, and it will come.