Tyre pressure, experience and finding the cobbled rhythm: how John Degenkolb prepares for Paris-Roubaix

John Degenkolb won the 2015 edition of Paris-Roubaix during his annus mirabilis. He might be 35 but after coming so close in 2023, he’s still a contender. Rouleur caught up with the German to talk tyre pressure, training between Flanders and Roubaix, and why his legend will remain forever etched in a stretch of cobbles

Team DSM-Firmenich’s John Degenkolb finished Sunday’s Tour of Flanders in 37th. “At one point my legs were just not good enough to be with the strongest guys,” he told the team's website. “But my overall shape is good for the race coming up.” More specifically, Paris-Roubaix this Sunday. This will be the German’s 12th Hell of the North, a race he won in 2015 off the back of victory at Milan-Sanremo. That season he also won a stage of the Vuelta a España and Gouden Pijl. Degenkolb is no longer the force he was but the 2023 edition showed he’s still a contender on the French pavé.

Degenkolb was part of the leading group in the closing kilometres until a collision with eventual winner Mathieu van der Poel resulted in a fall. Degenkolb remounted to finish seventh, his best result since victory eight years earlier. “It’s a race that’s always fascinated me,” he tells Rouleur. “To be successful there is everything. Victory was my biggest achievement in cycling. And I feel I could challenge again.”

As Degenkolb tells us, if he does, it’ll be down to experience, tyre pressure and racing fresh (but not “too fresh”). 

John, thanks for your time ahead of Roubaix this Sunday. You turned 35 this year. Is a repeat of your 2015 Roubaix victory really still within your grasp?

In the end, victory is something you always have in your mind when approaching a race, no matter what race it is, albeit my role has changed a lot. OK, at the cobbled Classics, I’m still looking to challenge, but at other races, I’m more of a domestique and guide the team as a road captain. So yes, I still harbour ambitions of success on the pavé, but it’s great that we now share that responsibility across the team. Now we have strong riders like Nils Eekhoof and Pavel Bittner who share the pressure. John Degenkolb

Degenkolb won the Hell of the North in 2015 (Image: Zac Williams/SWPix) 

Of course, you came so close last year…

No one can predict what will happen on Sunday but one thing’s for sure, I want to be in the same shape as one year ago. That is the goal. But it was really nice to see that I still had it within myself and could challenge the best riders in the world. Still, I have won the biggest races of the calendar and whatever comes now is a bonus.

This Sunday will be the 12th time you’ve raced Paris-Roubaix and the 12th time you’ve followed Flanders with Roubaix. What have you learned about recovering between the two in that time?

You can actually recover pretty quickly if you do the right things, which means striking the right balance between rest and training. You must ensure your mind and body is recovered but not too much as you’ll be too fresh and out of the cobbled rhythm. 

Of course, recovery also depends on how tough Flanders was and if you were looking to challenge. Let’s say you were dropped early at Flanders and, according to the numbers [power data], your race wasn’t that hard, you’ll have a little more intensity in the week than if you had a tough Flanders. But generally, you go for a longer, harder ride on the Wednesday or Thursday – if the weather allows. Experience plays an important role as you know how you’ve felt in the past, you know your bodily feelings.

Both Flanders and Roubaix are obviously famed for their pavé. But they’re actually rather different, aren’t they?

You cannot imagine how far away these two races are from each other. In the past, when you are successful at Flanders, then you are automatically top favourite for Roubaix. But the one race has nothing to do with the other race.

For me, I endured many years when I wasn’t that good at Flanders but raced well at Roubaix. That’s because there are very few climbing metres at Roubaix and the speed on the cobbles is higher. At Flanders, you need more watts per kilogramme to overcome the nasty hills. Take the Paterberg. It’s not even 500m long but it’s so steep and so hard to climb when riding over the cobbles.

Degenkolb at this year's Tour of Flanders (Image: Francesco Rachello/Tornanti.cc)

How you ride the Roubaix cobbles, the technique, it’s also so much more important to be efficient. You must save energy when you can. One rider who is so efficient is [Tadej] Pogačar. It’ll be interesting to see how long it’ll be before he’s taking on Roubaix to fulfil his five Monuments.

So, you can see a day when Pogačar’s challenging around the Roubaix velodrome?

Definitely. Sooner or later we will see him give it a shot. Hopefully by that time I’d have retired and I don’t have to suffer on his wheel! But yes, I’m certain he’ll try, especially as I think he has the physical capacity to be successful there. He might also change the characteristics and dynamics of the race. Look at Milan-Sanremo. Yes, [Jasper] Philipsen won this year, but he’s been the only sprinter since [Arnaud] Démare won in 2016. From a traditional sprinter’s race, it’s now generally those who favour the punchy climbs that dominate. As and when Pogačar races, it’ll be interesting to see how he might change the shape of the race.

Races like Flanders and Roubaix offer such different challenges than the remainder of the season. How much specific pavé work do you undertake in your preparation?

During the spring I look to spend as much time as possible on the cobbles, though it’s not always easy with the weather and surface conditions. But recon rides are vital for fine-tuning the materials you’ll be using and things like tyre pressure.

Things really crank up with the Opening Weekend in Belgium at the end of February. I arrived at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne [where Degenkolb finished 62nd] on the Friday for a pre-race ride on the Saturday while the other guys were racing Omloop [Het Nieuwsblad]. That’s important to get a feeling for the cobbles. Yes, you do hard early season races like the Saudi Tour, but the early cobbles are where you really crank up your conditioning.

Exercise physiologists like the respected Bent Ronnestad have undertaken studies that aim to replicate the cobbles by having cyclists ride upon rollers upon vibration plates. (It’s something we covered this time last year). From chatting to Bent, we know some riders use this set-up to train for the cobbles. Is this something you’ve ever incorporated into your cobbled training programme?

No. For me, to practise riding on the cobbles, you need to ride on the cobbles. The cobbles in the north of France are so different from anywhere else in the world. If you’ve never been there, you must attend to see how bad they are. TV coverage simply doesn’t show how brutal the Arenberg Forest and the Carrefour de l’Arbre really are.

Which explains why your Roubaix gear preparations involve such a forensic level of detail?

Your gear choices are so important. You can make crucial mistakes if, for instance, you don’t nail the correct tyre pressure. If you go too low, you increase your chances of puncturing; too hard and you’ll have less grip, which is particularly precarious in the wet. 

There’s lots to think about but what’s key is that you have as much ticked off before you arrive for Roubaix. On our team, we have one person who’s charged with creating a cobbled performance plan that gives you a guideline. From that guideline, you’ve still room to adjust things, but certainly not on the morning before Roubaix. 

What’s the greatest gear influence on your Roubaix result?

Your tyres, albeit what tyre pressure I use is for myself and the inner circle of the team. It’s always been that way. But I can talk width. At Roubaix last year, for instance, I used 32mm tubeless. That was the first time I’d used tubeless at Roubaix. In the recent past I’d used 30mm tubular tyres. That’s wider than Flanders where I use 28mm tyres. That offers lower rolling resistance, which makes you faster on the sections between the cobbles. That’s an important aspect at Roubaix, too, because while there are over 50km of cobbles, that means there’s around 200km that’s not on cobbles.

That’s why we’ve played around with tyre-pressure devices [like the Atmoz tyre pressure control system]. Last year some riders used it at Roubaix but it wasn’t the greatest success. It’s an integrated system that attaches to the hub with air lines running to the rim’s valve. You can then deflate or inflate wirelessly. You need something to work 100% at a race like this as you must be able to rely on it. It needs tweaking but they’ll get there, I’m sure, especially as it’s already something used in rally driving.

Beyond tyre pressure and tyre choice, how else do you dampen the vibrations of Roubaix?

Well, like most riders I use extra bar tape at both Roubaix and Flanders, but especially Roubaix. Also, our bike sponsors Scott give us the option of a flexible seatpost. I always like to use tape on my wrists at Roubaix, too, as it offers greater stability, as well as less pain afterwards.  Beside the gear, you must have the right technique to ride the cobbles. You must be very responsive. If you see or feel a hole, you must move your bodyweight on the bike so you don’t puncture. It comes down to learning by doing.

Degenkolb was part of the leading group in Roubaix 2023 before crashing on the Carrefour de l'Arbre (Alex Whitehead/SWPix)

Does that mean spending long spells riding in the gutter?

That depends on the weather conditions and the surface. And it’s not always a surefire way to remain upright. At Roubaix last year, that was the reason I crashed. I spotted a smooth, small line where I wanted to go, but Mathieu [van der Poel] did too. That meant no space for me, which is why I was basically pushed off the path and ended on the ground.

That highlighted the unpredictability of a race like the Roubaix. But one aspect that will remain constant is the 3.7km section that runs from Hornaing à Wandignies to Hamage, which was named after you in 2020. Tell our readers why, please.

Well, in 2019 I found out on Twitter that the Paris-Roubaix junior race was in danger of not happening as the organisers, including Amis de Paris-Roubaix, were short of funds, so I had the idea of crowdfunding. It’s not only important that the professional race happens but the junior races, too, as you want to raise riders who haves the same passion for this race as riders like me.

In the end, we raised around 20,000, which helped to secure the future of the event, and the organisers were so happy that they decided to name a cobbled sector after me, which doesn’t usually happen until you retire. It was a very special moment when I rode that pavé sector last year in first position with my parents standing there on the side of the road. My whole family were emotional.

Finally John, we know you’re a fan of motorbikes. Have you ever ridden the cobbles on one?

No, I don’t think the team would be too happy about that!

Cover image by Zac Williams/SWPix

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