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John Degenkolb (Germany) would finish just out of the medals in fourth place.
German second year pro makes huge progress on 2011 Worlds
From 111th in Copenhagen's World Championships to fourth in Valkenburg represents major progress in anybody's book and particularly when the two results have been garnered by a second year pro like Germany's John Degenkolb.
Then again, Degenkolb has been punching above his weight regularly this season. In August and September alone, the 23-year-old had taken five stages of the Vuelta, and then he won again in the GP D'Isbergues last weekend. From a rider who had taken fifth in Milan-San Remo and sixth in E3-Harelbeke this spring, to maintain such good condition right the way through to late September is remarkable, to say the least.
"We already knew that John can do a good sprint, and we'd agreed to work for him, but he was very, very strong on that last climb, particularly after such a very hard race," German team-mate Fabian Wegmann, who finished 27th in the main group behind Valverde, told Cyclingnews. "He really impressed me - I mean, this was nearly 300 kilometres of racing today!"
Wegmann rode five laps with a broken spoke after somebody slammed into his wheel in a big crash two thirds of the way through the race. But he battled on nonetheless and tried hard to pull back Gilbert, Valverde and Boasson Hagen on the Cauberg.
"I gave it everything to try and chase down those three guys, but it wasn't easy. Gilbert was unbeatable I guess, nobody could follow him but with the tailwind he was going at over 65 kmh so we couldn't have gone much faster."
He wasn't surprised that there were very few breaks before hand because "there was only ever tailwind and headwinds, never a crosswind. The headwind on the climb, and on the false flat, where can you go [on the attack]?"
Wegmann agreed, though, that the tension and speed that almost always plays a part in a World Championships course always does a lot more damage than it sometimes appears and at the end, the weaker riders fall away very quickly.
"In the end, anyway, there was only 30 riders in the front group. I thought with five laps there were going to be 150 riders at the finish. But it was a hard race."
"It was a nice race, too, though, there were so many spectators and that makes it very special. One time when I went over the climb, chasing down a big group, I got gooseflesh from the noise!"