Trek-Segafredo's John Degenkolb scored his best result of this year's Tour de France so far in a chaotic sprint at the end of stage 8 to Amiens, won by Dutch ace Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo). But Degenkolb's third place behind Bora-Hansgrohe's Peter Sagan came at the expense of Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and André Greipel (Lotto Soudal), who were relegated from their podium positions for head-butting.
Degenkolb told Cyclingnews that he was finding his sprinter's instinct again, which he didn't expect two months ago. But, that meant he had a front-row seat to witness the headbutting from Gaviria, and he wasn't liking what he saw.
"It was a very fast approach again to the sprint. Behind Greipel was Gaviria, and he was trying to squeeze himself through a gap that… There was actually no gap. It was pretty dangerous and I was scared behind them, and couldn't really do, like, a 100 per cent sprint. That was a bit disappointing of course," Degenkolb said as he warmed down in the shade of the Trek-Segafredo team bus.
The German explained that there was no train to help him out in the sprint because the team's GC rider Bauke Mollema was part of the big crash at 17 kilometres from the finish. "Again, I was up there. Today I was also by myself. The other guys had to wait for Bauke. I'm happy that he didn't crash badly and only had to wait, and that he made it back into the peloton and didn't lose any time," Degenkolb said.
Being on his own at the head of affairs, Degenkolb fought his way from wheel to wheel into a top-five position for the final sprint. It was a morale-boosting performance for the German. In the spring Classics, the German was a shadow of the rider he used to be, the man before the Calpe crash in January 2016. Degenkolb is a winner of 10 stages in the Vuelta a España, the winner of Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015, and the 2014 Gent-Wevelgem champion. The incident with a car that hit their group during a training ride in Spain two-and-half years ago cost him a lot, both physically and mentally. The skyrocketing career that earned him 40 pro wins at the age of only 26 was suddenly halted.
Since the crash, Degenkolb has struggled to be in the mix in the bunch sprints and the spring Classics, picking up 'only' five more wins. In Amiens, Degenkolb seemed to find more and more positive signs that he's on the way back to the highest level.
"I'm getting back the good instinct. That's very good to see. Two months ago, like my father just said, we were not expecting – of course always hoping but not sure – to be on this level. I'm happy to be here."
Having his instinct back, Degenkolb might be one of the men to keep an eye on during Sunday's 'mini Paris-Roubaix' ninth stage in the Tour de France. In 2015, Degenkolb won a dusty Paris-Roubaix in a sprint over Zdenek Stybar, Greg Van Avermaet and others.
"Tomorrow will be very crazy. You have to be up there from the beginning. Full gas. Before the cobbles, every time it will be like going for an intermediate sprint. You need to have the position. If you're in 10th position, you'll see nothing tomorrow. It will be so dusty. Every position can make the difference as to whether you stay on your bike or not. I feel good and am really looking forward to it," Degenkolb said.
Chances are, though, that Degenkolb will be reined in when the battle for the stage win kicks off, as he's got team leader Mollema to keep an eye on. Whether that happens will be for the cobbles to decide on Sunday afternoon.