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Degenkolb: The long road back to the Tour de France

Perspective is everything for John Degenkolb these days. Five months ago the German could have lost his career – even his life – when a car ploughed into him and several teammates during a routine training ride in Spain. Since then, the former Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix winner has dragged himself back from the brink, and after a lengthy rehabilitation is set to start his fourth Tour de France. Winning a stage, he tells Cyclingnews, would be huge after the year he has had but after everything he has gone through, he’s just glad to be here.

On January 23, several members of the Giant Alpecin team were training in Spain, putting the finishing touches to their form ahead of what they hoped would be another successful season on the road. Within a blink of an eye all those best-laid plans were thrown into turmoil when a car – driving on the wrong side of the road – drove into a group of Warren Barguil, Chad Haga, Fredrik Ludvigsson, Ramon Sinkeldam, Max Walscheid and John Degenkolb.

The riders escaped life-threatening injuries but the medical bulletin made for grim reading nonetheless. Degenkolb suffered a serious hand injury that needed surgery, and he later confirmed on Facebook that the end of his left index finger had almost been entirely severed. Barguil suffered a fractured scaphoid, while Walscheid fractured his hand and tibia. Ludvigsson and Sinkeldam escaped with multiple scratches and bruises. Haga also suffered an orbital fracture that could only be operated on after severe swelling had gone down.

In the intervening months each of those riders made a comeback to the sport. With the Tour de France just days away, Degenkolb is set to lead the line for Giant-Alpecin in the sprints.

“It’s the first time in my life that I’ve had to make such a big comeback after such a long time off the bike,” he tells Cyclingnews.

“That had a huge impact on me, of course, but if you put it into perspective and look at what happened in January then you realise that it’s great that I’ve reached the level where I am already. I’m really happy about that.”

No doubt on comeback

Both on physical and mental level this was far more than just a crash within a bunch, which although dangerous, is regarded as part and parcel of the sport. The Giant riders had just finished a training session centred around their leadout when they were training in Spain. They were tired, relaxed and on their way back to the team hotel for a well-earned rest.

“Until the moment of the accident I remember everything. It had been a really nice training ride and we’d just finished with our session and were just heading back. On the way there, on a tiny road, there was a car coming towards us. It hit us fully head on and I can’t remember much more,’ he says.

“I remember when the ambulances got there but there’s no memory before that, of lying there or anything. Apparently the ambulances took some time because there was a lot of guys down. We needed six of them and it wasn’t close to a big city. It was a horrible scenario for everyone - for those in the incident and for those that helped us. It was really hard for them to see us lying on the ground there, and then try and find the right words to help us and support us.

“It was nothing like a crash in race. It was completely different. With a car involved it was so much more life threatening. We were just blown off the road, lying 200 metres apart and it was something out of a war zone.”

Upon returning home to Germany, Degenkolb set about his rehabilitation with all the determination that had previously helped him to the pinnacle of the sport. While he might be relieved and appreciative of the fact that he has come through the incident, he understandably admits that there were some dark days in the aftermath. It was the not-knowing that weighed on him most. With his finger wrapped in a cast for several weeks, it meant that training wasn’t an option and there was – and there still isn’t - a 100 per cent guarantee that he will be able to regain full range of his index finger’s movement.

“The hardest moments for me were in the beginning when there was uncertainly over how long everything would take and how long I would be away from racing. For the first few weeks I could hardly bend my elbow so not knowing when I could at least get back on the bike was real concern for me,” he admits.

On a physical level Degenkolb is still regaining what he has lost. His fitness continues to improve and his sprint legs are returning. His finger is still braced in a cast but he has adapted as best as he can to his conditions.

“My left index find is still not able to move and work properly. It’s not like it was before my accident. It means I have to use the bike with four fingers on one hand. I have to say that I’m pretty much adapted to that now. I still ride with a cast on my left index finger but that’s partly for protection. For normal life I don’t need to wear it anymore so it’s just for races. It doesn’t look like the finger will ever bee at 100 per cent so it’s about how far it can be helped. I’ve already made a lot of steps.”

“For me there was no doubt that I would be able come back and compete a WorldTour. There was huge damage on my body I knew that I could come back and that it wouldn’t have a huge impact on the rest of my career. I was always confident and optimistic about that.”

“So far I’ve not won a race but I’m still happy with how things are going and the level that I’m on now. I had really professional physiotherapy and had great support, which really helped me comeback as quickly as possible.”

Tour de France perspective

Such an episode in any person’s life would have an impact on their outlook and Degenkolb is no exception. Sprinters are a special breed of rider, often seen as utterly focused, determined and even selfish at times. They have to be in many regards, with no quarter given or expected in the field. Degenkolb certainly hasn’t lost that hunger or drive but instead he appears to have added new dimensions to his frame of mind and attitude.

“I think that I’m more relaxed now. Sometimes you’d complain about tiny little things but in comparison to a situation like this they are totally not important. You get to see things through a totally different perspective. I remind myself now that no matter what, I have a great life. I have the opportunity to make a living with my passion, my hobby. Cycling is my love and that’s a privilege to enjoy. I keep that in mind when things are tough and I know that things like family are more important. I’m so grateful to still be able to play with my son and by there for my family. That’s more important than anything on the planet.”

A win at the Tour would be special moment for him, though. In three attempts he has yet to win a stage and although Germany is blessed with golden generation of sprinters, few would fail to warmed by the sight of Degenkolb finally taking a stage in July.

“The Tour is a big objective for me and the team. They still trust in me and that makes me happy to make the selection after everything that’s happened this year. I’ve really had to make sacrifices to get here and while the Tour is going to super hectic, I don’t think that it’s going to be a disadvantage to be relaxed. I’m really just looking forward to it.

“Winning a stage in the Tour de France would mean so much at any time in a rider’s career, but to take one after everything that’s happened to me would be the biggest relief I’ve ever experienced. I’m trying so hard to get 100 per cent out of everyday so that I can at the best level for the race. That’s my biggest goal right now and I really hope that I can achieve it.”

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Daniel Benson
Daniel Benson

Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.