John Degenkolb was in tears after a late puncture cost him a chance of victory in last year’s Milan-San Remo but he shed tears of joy on the podium after winning this year’s race with a perfectly executed sprint in Via Roma.
Degenkolb was not one of the big-name favourites before the race after a quiet, below the radar, build-up at Paris-Nice. But the Giant-Alpecin team rode a great race and put all their chips on Degenkolb. His number came up, confirming yet again, after Marcel Kittel’s success at last year’s Tour de France, that Giant-Alpecin is currently the best sprint team in the peloton.
“Last year I had tears in my eyes after I had the most disappointing day in my cycling life and this year I had tears in my eyes because I won,” Degenkolb said in his post-race press conference.
“I don’t actually remember the last two kilometres of the race, so I will have to watch it again,” he admitted. “I didn’t believe I’d win fifty metres before the line. I definitely thought I’d not be able to beat Alex (Kristoff) in the sprint because he started strong. But there was a difference in our power and speed. Before the line he died and I could overtake him. Crossing the line was pure emotion.”
Degenkolb showed he had worked hard during the winter by winning the uphill finish at the Dubai Tour in early February. After that he finished second in a sprint at the Ruta del Sol and third on another stage in Paris-Nice but was happy to quietly prepare for Milan-San Remo without the tag of favourite, despite being perfectly suited to the tough finale of the first monument of the season.
“I think that wasn’t a disadvantage,” he said, cracking yet another big smile.
“I could prepare myself in the winter and came good and in shape like I wanted to. Last week wasn’t successful as last year at Paris-Nice but we didn’t panic because we didn’t win a stage. Anything can happen in cycling, we didn’t worry and I felt my shape was good and so focused on Milan-San Remo 100 per cent. We came here on Thursday and did a long ride and studied everything again. We did the same last year but this time we finished it off.”
“I think I’m a rider with s big engine who is able to survive in Classic races. If there’s a sprint in the end like Roubaix last year or Milan-San Remo today. I’ve got a good chance to beat the other guys. I like it if everybody suffers and this was a hard race because of the weather conditions.”
Save your legs, save your legs, save your legs
Degenkolb admitted that he carefully hid in the peloton for much of the race, only moving forward before the Capi climbs and of course the Poggio.
“That’s the magic off Milan-San Remo. It’s a special race. We start in Milan and in the neutral zone and the guys are already nervous because of the traffic islands, the rail lines and the cobbles. And you see the riders crashing too,” he explained.
“I was relaxed and stayed calm, telling myself: save your legs, save your legs, save your legs. You shouldn’t’ be too far up front or too far back, you’ve got to find s balance. We did it super today as a team and they kept me in the front. I’m really proud about that. Experience is also important. I did it four times in a row and it took four years to gain the experience for it. You can talk to people for advice but I believe you have to experience the race yourself and grow via the disappointments like last year.”
Degenkolb ensured he was well positioned before the Poggio after help from teammate Tom Dumoulin. He then took the descent near front, before starting his sprint from sixth place. He revealed he had been two places ahead of Gilbert, Stybar and Kwiatkowski when they crashed on the high-speed descent of the Poggio.
“It was important to stay out of the wind and De Backer did that for the whole race. Then Tom was with me after the Cipressa and then I started the Poggio in a good position. We stuck together and he helped bring me near the front. I followed; I never planned to attack. I needed to make a good position and that was my goal. I was trying to have a good position on the Poggio to avoid crashes and splits. I was well placed and after that it was all together and you follow your killer instinct and believe in yourself to beat the other guys.”
“I don’t think there was a big difference in the sprint on Via Roma. The most important thing was to have good position, so as not to be blocked by anyone and be able to start your sprint. I still can’t believe that I won. When I watch the race it will perhaps come to me.”