Degenkolb using Vuelta a Espana to build for World Championships

German gunning for 11th stage win but knows opportunities may be scarce

Blink and you'll have missed it - or, indeed, them. Sunday's stage 2 could end up being one of the 2017 Vuelta a España's very few bunch sprints this year, although, as John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) points out, it might not even happen.

"There are not many sprinters here and there are not many sprint opportunities in the whole race - probably four - but you always have to see how the stages actually work out," Degenkolb, one of the very few specialists in fast finishes on this year's Vuelta, told Cyclingnews ahead of the start of the race on Saturday. 

"This lack of sprinters also means that, even on the theoretical bunch sprint stages, nobody is actually there to control the race. Maybe today, in any case, will be a crosswind stage and we won't get a bunch sprint."

Degenkolb is also one of another fast-disappearing breed: riders using the Vuelta as preparation for the World Championships. In the noughties, prior to the Vuelta's latest trend of multiple hill-top finishes, it used to be stuffed to the gunwhales with racers building for the Worlds. But, as a pathway to the battle for the rainbow jersey in late September, the much more mountainous Vuelta has been all but been abandoned.

Discussing the Worlds, Degenkolb says: "That's my main objective, to get in really good shape for it. Every day here you get your hours in on the bike and you focus on a few, maybe a couple of days, when you know there can be a possibility of a win.

"For the rest of the time, I'll just do my job in the team, and I will try to support the team as much as possible, getting better day by day."

Degenkolb is certainly an expert at clinching what few sprint stages do come up in the Vuelta. Since 2012, well into the era when the Vuelta began ladling out the summit finishes like there was no tomorrow, the former Paris-Roubaix and Milano-San Remo winner has taken a total of 10, as well as the points jersey in 2014. Plus, he points out, he took a second place in his first ever Vuelta back in 2011, behind a certain Peter Sagan.

This is the third time, too, that the German Classics and sprint star has followed the program of doing the Tour, and then re-setting his engines - with no racing in between - at the Vuelta. This time around it made sense from a family point of view, too.

"After the Tour I spent a lot of time with the family because my wife was pregnant and the baby arrived on August 3rd, so we've got a second child now, so that was very good," he tells Cyclingnews.

Bergen

Degenkolb has been hugely consistent this year, with top 10 finishes in all the cobbled Classics as well as Milano-San Remo, followed by a second, third, fifth and 10th place in the Tour sprints, but his only win dates back to February, a stage in the Dubai Tour. In the Vuelta, where he and BinckBank stage winner Edward Theuns will work on a day-by-day basis as to which is the primary sprinter, Koen de Kort will be the leadout man.

"I'm in a similar situation to what I've done in the past. I've done a hard Tour, but after a rest and the first couple of days in the Vuelta, I'll be getting better and better. I don't feel great right now, that's for sure, but I'm confident I can build things up in the last week," said Degenkolb.

Degenkolb will also have something to tell the grandchildren, as it were, in that he will be racing alongside Alberto Contador in his last ever race. "It's a big thing, one of the biggest riders of my generation is leaving the stage and to be there with him, helping him to be as successful as possible - I'm really looking forward to it."

With his own goals in mind, too, Degenkolb will not be heading for the airport on the second rest day, as used to be almost de rigeur for those looking to use the Vuelta exclusively to build for the Worlds. In the past Degenkolb has ridden the Vuelta all the way to Madrid and this year will be no different.

"Even if in the last week, there's not really a chance to make a result in a bunch sprint until Madrid itself, but it's good to stay in the race and get the altitude metres and the race kilometres under your belt," the Trek-Segafredo rider argues.

After that will come Degenkolb's biggest personal target of the second half of the season, the World Championships, where he placed ninth in 2014 and fourth in 2012, both on hilly courses like Norway, and both times after finishing the Vuelta, too.

Looking at the Bergen course, the German says: "It's never easy from what I've seen of it, there's a climb in three parts - up a bit and down a bit twice, then there's two kilometres upwards at six per cent.

"It's a climb, you have to suffer to hang on there and make it over the top. But for me, the biggest contender will be the weather conditions, it's going to be something completely different, the opposite to last year. We're probably going to race in 10 degrees and rain, so it will be very tough for everyone."

But after a three week Vuelta a España, and maybe a stage win along the way, Degenkolb should be ready to handle almost anything.

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