Former Paris-Roubaix winner John Degenkolb believes the proposal to fill the gaps between cobbles of the Arenberg Forest with mortar is the best way to safeguard rider safety.
Degenkolb, an ambassador for Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix – the volunteer group that maintains the cobbles for the race – says that putting mortar between the rough cobbles will allow the Arenberg to be ridden in all weather. Degenkolb won the cobbled stage of this year's Tour de France.
At the end of November, French publication La Voix du Nord reported that the race organisation was looking into ways of preventing grass from growing onto the cobbles. As chemical weed killers are not permitted in the forest, Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix use a thermal method each spring to burn away the grass and moss that grows between the cobbles. However the race organisers want something more permanent. According to the report, mortar would be laid between the gaps in the cobbles to prevent the grass from growing.
The Trek-Segafredo rider believes that the addition of the mortar will not have any material effect on how the cobbles feel to ride but it will make them safer.
"It will always be a challenge. It's not that they are putting asphalt on it," Degenkolb told Cyclingnews at Trek-Segafredo's training camp in Sicily.
"I don't think it's a bad decision. When I read it, at first, I thought it's holy and you can't change anything there. In this forest, they can't use poison to keep the grass away so if you fill it up with the concrete you don't change the position of the stones you just fill the gaps.
"I think, riding over it, you won't notice the difference but it just makes it safer. If there is a lot of rain before, the grass grows before the race. If we have a rainy edition and all the grass is on the cobbles it's basically impossible to ride. I'd prefer to have the mortar in between and have the possibility to go to the Arenberg even if it's raining rather than skipping it because it's too dangerous. In my opinion, it belongs to the race and I think that it could be an opportunity to make the race safer."
Full of confidence for 2019
Paris-Roubaix is once again set to be the climax to the first part of Degenkolb's season as he looks to re-find his winning form at the Classics.
The German goes into the 2019 season with a renewed sense of confidence after a breakthrough stage win at the Tour de France in July. A two-time monument winner, Degenkolb had struggled to get back to his top form after nearly losing his finger in a crash while training at a Team Sunweb camp in 2016 when a car on the wrong side of the road drove into the group.
His success at the Tour de France not only gave him a much-needed boost, but it showed him that sometimes he needed to be a bit more aggressive in his racing style.
"The confidence is definitely higher with this victory in the pocket. It's something very special," said Degenkolb.
"That was super nice to see that finally I had the feeling that there was nothing inside the whole system that slowed me down or breaks me somehow, like sickness or injury. That was so great to see and made me perform on that level again.
"I'm really sure that if I arrive healthy through the winter and all the preparation then I will be there to fight for the victories again. This brave, offensive riding like I showed in the Tour is something that I have to put into the Classics season and then I will be up there."
The success in July came after a particularly difficult patch for Degenkolb, a period he called the most challenging in his career – a bold statement considering his 2016 accident.
After a disappointing start to his spring campaign, which was hampered by illness at Paris-Nice, Degenkolb had to take a month off the bike following a crash during Paris-Roubaix.
"It was a pretty bad campaign," Degenkolb admitted.
"I definitely felt that I didn't have the level to compete for the victory but I was still there and I was improving from race to race and it was very challenging. In Roubaix, I was pretty okay, I don't know what I finished in the end [17th – ed] but it wasn't too bad. I crashed also and I damaged something in my knee and it took me another four or five weeks off the bike.
"That was basically the hardest period of my career. I have definitely had difficult periods before, especially after coming back after such a bad accident but to be in a moment where you don't know when you can go on the bike again, that's definitely the hardest thing. Eventually, I had very good treatment and very good doctors to support me. It was four weeks that I couldn't ride my bike and then it was just in time to start a proper preparation for the Tour."
While the Classics are a sure thing for Degenkolb, the rest of his calendar is still very much up for debate. Much of it will be mapped out in the coming days at Trek-Segafredo's training camp but a tilt at the World Championships in Yorkshire could take a little longer. The course looks ideal for him – so he keeps being told – but he wants to be certain of that before he confirms his goals for all of 2019.
"I'm now fully focussed on the Classics. I will give 100 per cent to be prepared from Milan-San Remo to Paris-Roubaix and then let's see what the plan is for the team," Degenkolb told Cyclingnews.
"We still have to decide what way we go to the World Championships. There is the possibility to, like normal, go for the Tour and try to win stages in the Tour. There's also the possibility to go a different way and maybe put a higher focus on the World Championships than we would do if you would go to the Tour de France.
"Before I make a decision, I want to definitely know it on paper, or even go there just to be sure."