There was no lap of the velodrome and no cobblestone trophy but John Degenkolb's victory in Roubaix, after arguably the cruellest and most tense stage of the Tour de France, was a hugely significant moment for the Trek-Segafredo rider.
In an instant, as he beat Greg van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert in the sprint, all his doubts, all the pressure and all the pain of the last two years fell away, giving way to relief, joy and personal pride. He was understandably quite emotional.
Degenkolb confirmed his talent for the Classics with victory at Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in 2015. But he has been fighting his way back from physical and mental scars left by an accident in Spain when a driver hit Degenkolb and several teammates during a 2016 pre-season training ride.
He suffered serious injuries and was left with a permanently damaged hand. He tried to make a comeback and won some minor races but questions about if he would ever return to his best constantly haunted him. He seemed to become weighed down by the pressure as other injuries slowed him. Yet he never gave up the fight. And so winning the Tour de France Roubaix stage was as emotional as winning Paris-Roubaix itself.
"So much pressure has fallen off my shoulders now, so the emotions of winning Roubaix are pretty similar," he admitted in the post-stage press conference in the covered velodrome near the finish, exactly the same place where he talked after winning the 2015 Paris-Roubaix.
"This is a very big victory and came after such a long time. I've been through a lot of things – it was such a hard time. I'm so happy for my wife and family. They gave me the strength to do this, to give 100 per cent and to work hard… it's amazing."
Degenkolb emotionally dedicated his success to a late family friend, who he described as his second father.
"He was my father's best friend and he has always supported me when I started cycling, helping me to race across Europe, he was always there.
"Last October he had a horrible work accident and passed away. I dedicated all the work I did during the winter to prepare for the season to him; I always had him in my mind. It was very emotional crossing the line and thinking about him."
I'm not done yet
Degenkolb indicated to Cyclingnews that he was back to his best after finishing third on Saturday's stage to Amiens. He was stuck behind Fernando Gaviria and Andre Greipel as they clashed along the barriers and could not open his sprint but he felt he had his old sensations. He just needed to prove it to everyone else. Sunday's win was sweet revenge.
"Everybody said I'm done, that after the accident I'd never come back. But I said: 'No. I'm not done yet.' I wanted to take at least one really big victory for Jörg - for my dad's friend - and to prove people wrong," Degenkolb said.
"I'm not afraid to admit, it's been really tough. A lot of people didn't believe in me anymore. It's been hard because I also kept getting other setbacks. A few months ago, at Paris-Roubaix, I crash really badly on my knee and I had a knee injury that stopped me for four weeks. That threw me far back and when that happens, you start doubting if you can come back all over again.
"That's the hardest part, not losing trust in yourself and believing you can still be up there."
Degenkolb got a Paris-Roubaix flashback as soon as he joined the decisive late attack with van Avermaet and Lampaert. Despite his problems since 2015, he was convinced he could and would win.
"I was sure I could do the sprint but not sure if we'd arrive together as three guys. In last 15 kilometres it was like a deja vu, like winning Roubaix," he said.
"The group was a similar group to then and that also helped me believe that I could beat the guys. I felt I had similar legs, I was never full gas and on the limit. I knew I could still do a good sprint. After all the doubts and set backs, it happened."
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