John Degenkolb Gets PEZ’d!
I didn’t know much about the Argos-Shimano team before their team launch the other week, OK I knew Marcel Kittel looked like an Arian god and John Degenkolb has been trying to grow a moustache since he was 7 years old and of course I knew they were both very fast. But I didn’t know anything of the man; Degenkolb, but that was to change.
John Degenkolb speaks perfect English, he is polite, answers every question and likes a laugh, more importantly he knows where he stands in the World of cycling and he has both his feet firmly on the ground. Could this be his police training? Five stage wins at last year’s Vuelta a Espaсa was a good sign of the man’s worth, what is the life of John Degenkolb really like?
PEZ: Do you think you became a bigger name after your five stage wins in the Vuelta?
John Degenkolb: Yes I think so, the importance around me grew, of course and the interest of the media and press and in Germany went up also. If I had won five stage ten years ago then the interest would have been much higher, but that’s the current situation in Germany now.
PEZ: How bad is it?
John: It’s not good at the moment; I wouldn’t say it was bad, but it’s not good. Cases like Armstrong and stuff like that doesn’t make it any better.
Who cares about interest in Germany when he’s getting interest like this at the Vuelta?
PEZ: There are only three or four German journalists, there used to seventeen or eighteen and you would probably be riding in a German team.
John: Probably, yea.
PEZ: Are you treated differently now by the bigger names in the peloton after your wins?
John: Yes that is one thing, but I think also in the races it now makes it more difficult to win and it is more difficult to do your job the way you want to compared to when nobody knows you. You have to act a little bit different also because if I’m there in the races and I have a good team around me then everybody knows that we want to have the sprint and to be able to make a perfect lead-out, the others attack to make small groups so we have to bring them back with 5 or 10 K’s to go and then make our lead-out.
PEZ: Do you think the bigger riders now come to talk to you because of your wins?
John: No, they don’t just come to talk to me because of the success. I’m still young and this is only my second season as a professional, so someone like Tom Boonen isn’t going to just come and talk to you, come on, it’s never like that in cycling or in social life. You need to know each other and that takes time. I think Fabian Cancellara isn’t talking to me because of my 5th in Sanremo, but he is talking to me because he knows me now and he likes me as a person.
John popped a lot of champagne in 2012.
PEZ: Do you talk to him often?
John: Well, we are not really friends or chatting every day, but when we see each other we are going to talk like colleagues.
PEZ: Would you ask him for advice, like how to win races?
John: Yea but he’s not telling everything because in the end I’m a competitor and we are contenders, so that’s normal.
PEZ: Have you learned anything from Cancellara?
John: Yes, only small things though, like mmm I don’t know. Eating a lot of pasta before a race, you know stuff like that.
PEZ: Milan-Sanremo is one of your aims for this year, is that the sort of race that suits you?
John: It’s a long race and I like long races, long days. When you come down to the coast there and the weather is changing, that’s a great feeling and then you go along the coast and up to the Cipressa. Its only two climbs in the end and these climbs in general are not hard, but after 200 K’s or 250 K’s, the climbs will be hard. You are on the coast and it’s really nervous and hectic, but that’s the character of these races
PEZ: Is it mentally tougher than some other races?
John: No not tougher, all the monuments are tough, Sanremo, Flanders, Roubaix are all tough and are all unique.
PEZ: Was Sanremo the Classic you dreamed of when you were young?
John: No there were three races, Sanremo, Flanders and Roubaix, those were the three races I watched on television and followed as a child. I saw Erik Zabel when he won Sanremo a couple of times.
PEZ: When did you start watching cycling and was it Zabel because he was a sprinter like you or Ullrich you remember the most?
John: I was maybe about 10, something like that. I think it was a lot more Ullrich because he was more popular and more known and when you looked in the newspaper around 200, there was always something about Ullrich, he was really popular in Germany, and it’s a shame that cycling is not that popular anymore.
PEZ: What can be done to change that?
John: Keep on working, keep on doing what we are doing now.
PEZ: Do you feel there is more pressure on you and you have more responsibility to help the sport?
John: We have to be transparent and I think I am riding in one of the most transparent teams and we are doing 100% clean sport and that makes it easier to give that message out that we are transparent.
PEZ: Did you become a cyclist because your father was a cyclist?
John: Yes my father was a cyclist and also a bit because of the Team Telekom hype; I started cycling. It was really popular in Germany and I think it was in ’97 or ’98 when my father asked me if I would like to go for a small race there next to our city. It was like 2 kilometres long this race, not that big, but I won and from this moment on the passion and the feeling was there to win races.
PEZ: Can you remember the bike you had then?
John: Of course! It was actually a rented bike because a friend of ours had a bike shop and he had a small bike for me with the shifting on the frame, a steel frame, like old school. That was my biggest trophy for a long time; it took me maybe 5 or six years to win a bigger trophy. The first one was the biggest, it was really crazy. It’s still in my parents’ house.
I doubt if John’s first race had quite the same podium girls as in the Vuelta but it did have a big trophy!
PEZ: How important was your father?
John: He was really important. I grew up in Bayern in the South of Germany where we have a lot of races all over there and my parents went with me every weekend, maybe 250 kilometres away for a small race of only 40 kilometres. If my parents had not supported me in that way then it would not have been possible, but I had a great time then and I’m really happy my parents supported me in that way.
PEZ: So are you the kind of cyclist who is addicted to winning?
John: Like I told you I won my first race and that started the fire burning in my heart to win races. I have a lot of respect for these guys who are racing, sometimes their whole career without winning races, just to race and to love this passion; I really have a lot of respect for these guys. Addy Engels, I think he went 13 times to the Giro and didn’t win any stage or any race in that time; he was pretty close one time, second or third. Yea I have a lot of respect for those kind of guys. He (Addy Engels, Argos-Shimano DS) has a lot of experience and I’m really happy to be with him in the team, yea we can really learn a lot from him
PEZ: Before you became a cyclist you studied to be a policeman?
John: Yes I finished my qualifications, so I am a policeman. I had to work for 4 years and every winter for 4 months we had to go to school there and the rest of the year was free for racing and training. I started at 16, but already I was like a professional rider, but for 4 months I had to go to school and then after for 2 years it was like a test time and I had to work 100 days in those 2 years. Then afterwards you are like a policeman.
PEZ: What did you have to do as a policeman?
John: I did a lot, everything, we gave tickets, we did everything. Even the bad things, we had to go to an apartment and there was a dead person and stuff like that and traffic accidents and everything actually. It was really hard to see a dead person, you need to learn that stuff, and for me it wasn’t easy, it was a strange situation to be in.
PEZ: You once escorted the town’s Christmas tree?
John: Yes it was a huge tree, bigger than a house, we had to carry this tree from 200 kilometres away over the highway with a police car in front of the big truck, it was really nice. It was huge, really unbelievable and not many people can say they touched the top of this big tree. When I was walking around the Christmas market with my friends I could say “ah! I have been up there at the top.”
PEZ: Was that the same feeling as winning a stage of the Tour of Spain?
John: Not really, no. That was something different.
PEZ: Has becoming a policeman given you a strong feeling of justice?
John: I think so, I also make mistakes, nobody is perfect. The important thing is that I know what’s coming after cycling, if I had to stop cycling suddenly, but a lot of guys in the cycling family don’t know. From one day to the next day it stops and you are not able to do your work, that’s an important thing that gives me a good feeling. I am happy that my parents wanted me to do that and not just finish the normal school after 10 years and be a professional cyclist, because you never know, it can be over so quick in one second, it’s a good thing to be a policeman.
John in uniform.
PEZ: Does this give you a stronger opinion against doping in the sport?
John: Yea, you cheat and if you dope its wrong. My opinion I really couldn’t imagine how hard it is to put something in your body and you know it’s forbidden and if they find something. You know I was tested the day after Christmas day (Boxing day) at 8 o’clock in the morning, they can come every day and whenever they want, I was at my parents house. I really can’t believe how these guys can sleep knowing the controls now and that if they find something, well that’s something I can’t imagine.
PEZ: How is your relationship with the other top sprinter in the team; Marcel Kittel?
John: It’s really good, we are good friends, we have known each other for 5 or 6 years, we grew up in the same town and raced for the same team, he was at my wedding, yea it’s a close relationship.
PEZ: Knowing each other as well as you do, does this make sprint work easier?
John: Yea of course that makes it easier, I know exactly what he can do and his qualities and on the other hand he knows my qualities. It makes it easier to suffer for a guy and I know if I do a good job, for sure he’s going to win the race.
PEZ: You are two different sprinters?
John: Of course, we are totally different, that’s why we are together in the team. Last year we didn’t do too many races together, we had different programmes, it’s one of the points of the group that we wouldn’t race together, but there will be some races when we will race together. The biggest goal for us is the Tour de France in July, we will be there together, but I think I don’t see any problems.
PEZ: Who is the main sprinter for the Tour?
John: Marcel will be there for the fast, flat sprints and I’m going to take part in the lead-out train, then on the difficult stages he is going to take part in my lead-out train, he will do the work for me to hopefully put me in a position at the bottom of climbs
PEZ: How important was Koen de Kort?
John: He’s a great guy, incredible, I was really impressed by him, he did it in the Tour de France, he also did a good job there. He’s really a talented guy, not just physically but mentally he was strong and he supported me over three weeks and I’m happy to have him in the team and he is also a good friend.
PEZ: Does he not think he is good enough to go for wins for himself?
John: No, he knows he is good at this job to lead someone out, the same for Tom Veelers, in the Tour it’s hard to win a race and it’s important to have guys like these. It’s our job to show them that we appreciate their job. Without these Dutch guys it would have been impossible to win five stages at La Vuelta.
PEZ: This team has a lot of Dutch guys; do you notice any differences between the Dutch and the Germans?
John: Oh yea of course, they walk around with wooden shoes and eat a lot of cheese! No I think we are pretty similar, not much of a difference. I like the language, it’s quite funny. I understand it more and more, but I can’t speak it, it’s too hard.
PEZ: When you win a race do you have any idea how you will celebrate it?
John: I don’t have the time to think about it too much, I’m always celebrating in the same way, I think when I won the fourth stage I made like this with four fingers. I’m not lying in bed the day before thing on what I’m going to do tomorrow. I think it’s better to concentrate on the more important things like your performance, show you can do it and party afterwards, the race is the race.
PEZ: What is your main aim for this year?
John: To win a Classic race.
PEZ: Which one, Roubaix?
John: That would be the perfect case, but there also other races. The first goal is to have a good Spring Classics season and then the Tour de France of course.
PEZ: What are your thoughts on Paris-Roubaix?
John: It’s incredible really, I think the most crazy thing is that race is that we are going on the same roads as over 100 years ago. Sometimes it’s still really the same roads, that makes it unbelievable and the finish on the track is special. Did you see that movie; Road to Roubaix, I really like this movie its one of my favourites. The first time I rode it my wife gave the DVD to make a good preparation in the hotel, I watched about three or four times before the race.
PEZ: You finished 5th in Milan-Sanremo, how could you improve on that place?
John: You have to improve your own shape and the team has to improve, maybe to have one or two more strong guys at the end would be even better, also the experience you gain of the years is important. It’s not just one thing or you could just do that one thing to win Milan-Sanremo. It’s also a mental thing.
PEZ: Could you have done something differently at last year’s Milan-Sanremo?
John: No, nothing. I think I could have done a bit better at the Worlds if I had been more optimistic before the race, more confident. I didn’t think I was strong enough to really fight for the medals, but in the end I was. Maybe I was too scared to go too early. But, well now it’s over and the next time I will know it!
PEZ: So last year’s World championships were very important for you to learn?
John: Yes, after 220 kilometres I still felt good and there were 25 or 30 guys around me on the last lap and everything went so fast and then we were at the finish and that was it.
PEZ: Would you say Philippe Gilbert is your biggest competitor, as you both like similar finishes?
John: No, I wouldn’t say he was my biggest, but he is a great rider, he is the World champion, come on. It was incredible how he attacked on the Cauberg. It was like I saw him when he was coming and then next thing he was in front of me. It was incredible what he did there and I hope in the next years I am strong enough to follow him or drop him.
PEZ: The most special feeling would be wearing the Rainbow Jersey?
John: Yes of course, it’s the highest, that’s something that there is nothing above.
John Degenkolb; World Champion. It’s very possible as the 24 year old has lots of time and he for sure has the ambition and the legs, not sure about the moustache though.