Stepping into a Classics-shaped hole left by Fabian Cancellara at Trek-Segafredo this season was always going to be a challenge for any rider, even if that rider has victories in Ghent-Wevelgem, Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix on his palmarès.
When John Degenkolb signed for the American outfit at the start of this season from Giant-Alpecin, he had one key objective in mind: to add to his Monument victories this spring.
But the 28-year-old German insists he isn’t looking to make comparisons between himself and the now-retired, seven-time Monument winner.
Known as a gentleman off the bike but as aggressive as they come when on it, Cancellara was a perfectionist who was unrelenting in his pursuit of victory.
Degenkolb, meanwhile, has a different take on his own leadership style.
“I don’t want to compare myself with Fabian because I’m a completely different person,” Degenkolb explains in the lead up to this year’s Classics campaign.
“I think I am a leader who is very honest to everyone.
“I always try to be very close to all my team-mates because that’s what helps you get the full potential out of everyone.
“If you race as one team, with one big spirit, then you can achieve more than if a director tells you what to do.
“I think the will for success has to come from the inside of the team, not from pressure outside.”
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While Cancellara often liked to catch other riders unaware, attack and race alone, Degenkolb possesses a fast sprint alongside his one-day racing credentials.
It’s a sprint that has helped him secure multiple stage wins at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, and means his rivals won’t want him there if the race ends in a group run-in to the line.
Trek has equally tweaked its Classics line-up to get the best out of him.
Riders like Stijn Devolder and Yaroslav Popovych departed with Cancellara, while Dutchman Koen de Kort — Degenkolb’s close friend — followed him from Giant to act as road captain.
“I think I’m one of the guys who can handle the long distances the most,” Degenkolb says. “I can still perform really well when everybody has had to suffer a lot. I think it’s my biggest talent.
“Everybody checks how much fuel is in the tank and if there’s no fuel left then you get dropped or you do not have the punch to have the best sprint.
“That’s what it’s about, it’s about saving energy and riding smart, having a good team, the best equipment. In the Classics everything has to be perfect — the whole concept has to be perfect.”
Softly spoken, polite and well-liked by fans, Degenkolb, along with the likes of Marcel Kittel and Tony Martin can be credited with reviving Germany’s faith and love for cycling in recent years.
Though the Tour de France Grand Départ in Düsseldorf doesn’t feature a stage suited to a sprinter like him, the fact the race is starting in Germany for the first time in 30 years this summer — potentially the only time it will do so during Degenkolb’s career — will be a motivation for him, he says.
But first there’s the Classics to race, and having been forced to watch last year’s campaign on television at home, after Degenkolb and his then team-mates were in collision with a car while they were on a training ride in Calpe, he is determined to prove he’s still got the form and condition he had in 2015.
“I’m of course very motivated to show again that I have big potential,” he explains. “I mean, I know that I can do this, but yeah, many guys thought that after what happened last year that maybe this is it.
“I think I’m on the best way to prove that I’m still there.”
This article originally appeared in Cycling Weekly magazine issue 30/03/2017