John Degenkolb’s body language said it all. He was a man visibly going through the early stages of grief.
After crossing the finish line of Paris-Roubaix, he came to a halt at the start of the back straight and stopped by his wife Laura on the infield. He hugged her tight. His dusty face was downturned. It was hard to tell whether his face was reddened from intense effort or overpowering emotion.
His two children stood at his flank, looking around at the blue skies and cheering fans, oblivious to the extent of his suffering. Before the race start in Compiègne, Degenkolb had been cheerfully showing media the drawing of a green chocolate egg stuck on his top tube that one of them had done. Happy Easter, John.
Who can blame him for endlessly replaying the moment that changed his race in his mind? 600 metres onto the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the decisive sector 17 kilometres from the end of Paris-Roubaix, he was the filling in an Alpecin-Elegant sandwich.
Jasper Philipsen was on the front, with Degenkolb just off his wheel in the right gutter as Mathieu van der Poel accelerated on his left shoulder. Within a second, Philipsen moved unexpectedly from the crown to the right of the road, Van der Poel and Degenkolb brushed shoulders and the German went down.
He had to wait 35 seconds for a bike change from his team car; an eternity. He threw up his arms in frustration. God only knows what was going through his head on the lone ride to the velodrome.
There were upsides. Seventh place in Paris-Roubaix. His first top ten of the year. A return to form for the old man of the group. At 34, he was five years older than anyone else in front, fighting champion powerhouses from a different generation. A quick smiler and gentlemanly German, Degenkolb was a cinch for a soft-hearted neutral’s pick.
It looked like he was going to turn to the waiting media. Then he leant over the metal barrier for twenty seconds, as if hit by a sudden pang of regret.
“I know that I was on the right side, then suddenly, first Philipsen moved to the right side and I was already there in the ditch. And then also Mathieu squeezed himself through and pushed me, basically – yeah, there was no space for me anymore – into the spectators at the side of the road. And then I crashed.” He let out a hollow laugh.
“I have a lot of pain in my left shoulder but I think it’s not easy to describe how big the disappointment is. It’s been a long time since I was out there in a final like this. I think I rode a really good race and it’s really disappointing to have that chance for a really good result taken away.”
There was spittle on his dusty right thigh as he grimaced. It could have been much more, and the gaping unknown consumed him. “I was for sure not the strongest in that group but Roubaix is Roubaix and anything can happen once you’re in that group, so close to the final,” he said.
He has a special affinity with this French city from his 2015 Paris-Roubaix win in a seven-up sprint, as well as his Tour de France stage there in 2018. In 2019, he saved the junior race by injecting €10,000 of his own money. Now, he understands full well how Roubaix giveth and taketh away.
The probing question came from a journalist: does he blame Jasper or Mathieu? Degenkolb was charitable: “I don’t want to say something now because I haven’t seen the images, it’s hard to remember.”
Philipsen and Van der Poel waited in the velodrome to console him, but only offered non-commital assessments to the press. “I said sorry but I don’t think we really did something wrong. It’s just the moment, but of course, you don’t want to see anybody crash,” the second-placed finisher said.
“I haven’t seen the images so I don’t know if it’s my fault or if he hit a spectator or a bump. If it’s my fault then apologies: it wasn’t on purpose and it was a race situation,” Van der Poel said.
An apology would serve no purpose. Degenkolb will be reliving that moment for days and weeks; the hurt will last a lot longer than the physical pain from the crash.
It was especially cruel for a proud servant of this race. Degenkolb might be an Ami du Paris-Roubaix ambassador, but fate was not his friend today.
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