If John Degenkolb (Lotto Soudal) gets a shade more emotional than usual about targeting this year's Paris-Roubaix, it's for good reason. After all, it's not every year that a participant in the famed Monument gets to ride over a sector of pavé that has been named after him, as will be the case for Degenkolb.
"It's two sectors after Arenberg, and I think it's one of the longest of Roubaix, maybe four stars at least," Degenkolb told Cyclingnews while at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. "I was very surprised when they contacted me telling me they were going to do this. It's a big honour."
Degenkolb's name will be applied to 3,700-metre sectors from Hornaing à Wandignies to Hamage, and a ceremony held to honour the naming will take place Monday.
"It's a very special moment," he said.
The reason why Degenkolb has been singled out for such a recognition is mainly due to his efforts last year to save the Paris-Roubaix junior race. When the organisers confirmed the event was at risk of being cancelled because of a shortage of funds, Degenkolb started a crowdfunding campaign to salvaged the race.
Degenkolb's behind-the-scenes work for Paris-Roubaix extends far further than the online campaign, though. He told Cyclingnews that he is also an Ambassador for the Friends of Roubaix, "the people who take care of the pavé sectors, who try to keep them on point and repair them when necessary," he said.
"It's a nice collaboration, because they know I care very passionately about Paris-Roubaix and for me it's fascinating to see these people, as volunteers, working [so many] hours to keep the race alive. That's something unique in sporting events around the world, I think and it definitely makes Paris-Roubaix my favourite race."
A fan of films and books about Paris-Roubaix such as Jurgen Leth's A Sunday in Hell, Degenkolb said that "Every time I watch these kinds of things, I get goosebumps. The passion and the history is what makes this event so amazing and it makes me think even more about what it means to be riding over the pavé."
With his feelings for Paris-Roubaix so evident, it's almost unnecessary to ask Degenkolb what his biggest goal of the first half of the year will be. Indeed he said, unprompted, "Of course winning in 2015 was one of the brightest moments of my career. And for me personally, winning another one would be the biggest dream and that's my main target of the spring season.
"But obviously we also do other, very important races, and I will try to be as good as possible for them as well."
Whilst his key objectives therefore remain the same, Degenkolb's switch from Trek-Segafredo to Lotto Soudal in the off-season could have created hitches behind the scenes. But, he said, all has gone smoothly for now.
"So far it's going really well, particularly when we have to consider I changed absolutely everything - bike, trainer, environment, the team. So I'm very happy with how it's going - Lotto are a super nice group of people.
"I've been racing in Belgium for so long but this is my first time in a real Belgian squad, and going into something like Flanders will be very special."
One key facet of that change is his relationship with Lotto Soudal's Belgian star racer, Philippe Gilbert, which he describes as being good. "We get on very well with each other. He's a good guy and a great champion."
The Lotto leaders have yet to "divide up the Classics cake", Degenkolb said, although he recognised that Milan-San Remo is a key goal for Gilbert this season.
"For him it'd be number five in the Monuments. Of course I want to be in good shape there too, and we'll have Caleb Ewan there as well, so we have a lot of possibilities.
"We'll have to see how everything goes, and it's early in the season. But I don't see any problems with all three of us taking part in San Remo."
Degenkolb's Classics program is almost entirely the same as previous seasons, with the one significant alteration being the addition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Featuring a much tougher route this season than other years, it is arguably more suited to Degenkolb. He took a top-three finish in a similarly hard Gent-Wevelgem last season - curiously, Degenkolb has never raced Kuurne before.
"I've mostly skipped the Opening Weekend to have a short training camp, so that's a change," he said. "And we haven't really talked about beyond Roubaix, we'll see how the Classics are going. Personally I'd like to do the Tour, but there's no clear line-up so far."
The 2018 Tour de France was, of course, where Degenkolb last crossed the finish line in Roubaix with his arms aloft - and he hopes to do so again in a few weeks time. Whatever happens this April, it's already clear the German's strong links with the Hell of the North will endure.
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