While the majority of the Milan-San Remo pre-race circus has focused on the array of options at Deceuninck-QuickStep and the uncertain form of former three-time world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), one former winner of the La Classicissima has gone virtually unnoticed.
At Trek-Segafredo's hotel on the outskirts of Milan, riders almost outnumbered journalists, but John Degenkolb is experienced enough to know that if he wins on Saturday the media and their limelight will come flooding back. Those with short memories perhaps need reminding that Degenkolb won Milan-San Remo back in 2015, during a purple patch that also saw him claim Paris-Roubaix. He was, for a spring campaign at least, the man of the moment.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, but Degenkolb's dramatic stage win during last year's Tour de France suggested that the German was finally back to something like his best. Another win at the Tour de la Provence earlier this year, and a string of impressive placings, suggests that the 30-year-old could well feature this weekend.
"The season has gone well so far. I had a pretty decent start to the year with a hard block of racing at Provence and then Algarve right after," he tells Cyclingnews in the lobby of Trek's race hotel.
"I had a crash on the first day of Algarve, and the racing was pretty hard. Paris-Nice could have been a bit better. I was up there nearly every day, but I wasn't happy with not winning there because I was close a few times. I've recovered well though, and I'm ready for San Remo."
Trek, with their three wins this year, have endured a slow to start to the campaign. Richie Porte has been hit with illness, while the Classics contingent – minus Degenkolb, who was training – completely misfired during the Opening Weekend. However, after a chance to reflect they are back, and Milan-San Remo represents an important reference point before the racing returns to the cobbles of Belgium and France.
"If you go home disappointed like this, then of course you want to show that you can do better," Degenkolb says when asked if the team are looking to prove a point after Opening Weekend.
"We've worked really hard over the winter and we've a super strong line-up for the Classics. When you see the riders and the names here, we have one of the strongest teams. We just have to use it. To have Gianluca Brambilla, to have Toms Skujins and Edward Thuens… if nothing goes wrong then we can all be up there. That's also the goal, to ride together until the Via Roma."
Opening Weekend hurt within the Trek-Segafredo ranks. Before the Belgian double-header the squad were confident of a result, but the bruising encounter can be put to the back of their minds on Saturday. With Degenkolb now among their selection they have their most decorated one-day winner since Fabian Cancellara. The German rider worked tirelessly throughout the winter, boosted by the confidence his Tour stage win provided, and with a stable off-season he is close to his winning Milan-San Remo form.
"We worked hard all the way through the winter. We can go into the next races with a lot of confidence and we don't need to hide. We have what's needed to win these races, and I'm sure that we will.
"For me personally, I spent a lot of time in Mallorca and was away from my family a lot. That wasn't easy. A few times I took the family with me just so I could be with the children. That's the hardest part for me, being away from home, but I made a good plan with training camps, and being on and off, and going home. So far, I've not been sick and that was the biggest problem last winter. The base is much more solid.
"This is a really important race for everyone who is preparing for the Classics. I have this race in the pocket with my win. Yesterday I got the question whether it was easier or harder to win again, but I think it's easier because I can go into it knowing what's coming. I feel similar to how I felt in the year that I won. I'm confident and I'm looking forward to tomorrow."
The might of QuickStep
Whoever ends up on the top step of the podium come Saturday afternoon, they will have to deal with the predicted assault from QuickStep. The Belgian team have far from the perfect record in the race, but with Julian Alaphilippe and Elia Viviani, QuickStep possess two of the prime favourites.
Degenkolb has the pedigree to compete with Viviani in a sprint after 300km, but matching a move from Alaphilippe on the final set of climbs is out of his skillset. He will need to use his team, and certainly rely on others, but both Degenkolb and Trek can race without the pressure QuickStep have on their shoulders.
"They definitely have a team that can do everything but they still need to get it right. They have to find a way to work together, make a good plan, and sometimes that’s not so easy," he says.
Going into Milan-San Remo under the radar is certainly not a bad position to be in for a team leader.
"It's definitely an advantage," Degenkolb says with a smile.
"If you're the main favourite then you're definitely under pressure. Not only the journalists are looking for you but the other riders as well. Many times in Milan-San Remo you have a guy who wins and you've not seen him all day until the finish. Maybe he was hiding in the bunch and saving energy and all of a sudden, he wins. I watched the sprint from when I won a few days ago, and the commentator was saying, 'You've not seen Degenkolb all day and now he’s won the sprint'. That's the way to do it if it comes to a sprint."
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