Degenkolb searching for past form at Tour of California

John Degenkolb may be the happiest rider at the Tour of California. That may seem like an odd statement to make about a professional cyclist who was involved in a life-threatening collision with an errant driver while on a Giant-Alpecin team training ride in January. But on the eve of the Tour of California, Degenkolb’s first stage race of the season following his recovery, the 2015 Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo winner said he was just happy to be alive and racing his bike.

“I’m feeling good again,” Degenkolb said Friday afternoon in San Diego ahead of the Tour of California’s opening stage on Sunday. “First of all, I’m very happy to be here. I’ve had some pretty tough months behind me now, and I’m happy to start my first stage race.”

Degenkolb was one of six Giant-Alpecin riders involved in the crash when an automobile ploughed head-on into the group. Degenkolb and teammate Chad Haga suffered the worst of the injuries, with Degenkolb nearly losing an index finger that required extensive surgery to repair.

While all of the riders involved in the crash have returned to competition [Haga recently finished 12th in the Giro d’Italia’s opening time trial], Degenkolb’s injuries were some of the slowest to heal. He started his first race just two weeks ago at the GP Frankfurt.

“It was good but I wasn’t able to finish,” he said. “I hope I can stay in the race here. It’s a tough parcours so it will be very hard.”

But nothing in California will likely be as hard as the months-long recovery process Degenkolb has undergone. Aside from needing time to repair himself physically, the psychological trauma of the crash also required patience and good timing.

“It was a horrible crash and, of course, it affects your performance on the bike and how you go back on the bike,” Degenkolb said. “I was pretty scared before I did my first ride outside in traffic again, and it turned out to be quite normal, luckily.

“I think it was good that I didn’t start too early to go outside,” he said. “Your body and your head need to finish the process. And in the end, I am happy to be a cyclist again, and of course to be still alive, but also happy to live the dream of being a cyclist. That’s important to me, and I’m happy to be here.”

Giant-Alpecin is obviously happy to have the Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix winner back as well. Slowed by the training crash that took out so many riders, the Dutch team had gone without a win until Tom Dumoulin’s Giro d’Italia stage 1 victory. Although Degenkolb may not be ready yet to contest stage wins in California against the likes of Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish and Alexander Kristoff, he’s definitely started down the comeback path, and at least one teammate thinks he can be back in top form by the Tour de France.

“He can get to that at level again. I have a lot of faith in him to come good again for the Tour de France,” Koen de Kort told Cyclingnews last month.

“He obviously still needs time but he’s been training hard. I speak to him frequently and he’s feeling good. Doing races is still a bit different to training so he needs his time. He’s not going to win his first race back, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be long until he’s back to his peak level.”

The team, however, isn’t putting any pressure on the star rider to deliver results, saying earlier this week that Degenkolb’s goal for the Tour of California is to simply get back into the rhythm of racing.

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.