• John Degenkolb hugs teammate Jasper Stuyven after winning Stage 9 of the Tour de France. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
It was fitting John Degenkolb won over the cobbles in Stage 9 of the Tour de France, as no one in the peloton has endured a rockier road over the last few years.
Cycling Central

16 Jul 2018 - 9:36 AM  UPDATED 16 Jul 2018 - 10:16 AM

Scroll back the calendar to 2015. John Degenkolb emerges, a colossus of the classics. He wins Milan San Remo in a bunch sprint, then goes on to produce a powerhouse showing at Paris-Roubaix, winning the reduced sprint after an impressive effort to bridge to the late attack.

That move contained Greg van Avermaet (BMC) and Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors), who would also face off some three years later against the German hard man. Again it would be over the Roubaix cobbles, but the circumstances were so different.

A candid outpouring of emotion from John Degenkolb after the stage finish

Back in 2015, Degenkolb was at the peak of his career. It was his 18th WorldTour victory and his most famous. Fast forward to Stage 9 of the 2018 Tour de France and Degenkolb hasn't added to that tally of World Tour wins.  

In between lies a world of tragedy, setbacks and pain. On January 23rd, 2016, Degenkolb and his then Giant-Alpecin teammates were taken out by a car hitting them head-on while on a training camp in Spain. While most of the squad was hospitalised, it was Degenkolb and teammate Chad Haga who were worst affected, with Degenkolb nearly losing his index finger. The German had surgery on his leg, finger and forearm in the aftermath of the incident.

Then-teammate Warren Barguil said of the incident, "We could have all been killed."

Degenkolb made his return to racing in May, just over four months after the crash. Arguably too early after such an incident, but Degenkolb described his feelings during that period.

"In the sport, if you have an accident like this... in a few weeks, a few months they still remember it happened," said Degenkolb after his Stage 9 win. "But then they go to normal business again. You have to perform, you are under pressure, you put yourself under pressure. It was not an easy time for myself." 

Obstacles kept on cropping up for Degenkolb in his career. Crashes and niggling injuries fed into the resilient German never being able to build form, fuelling a narrative that stated he would never return to the rider he was before the crash. He was even hospitalised in September 2017 with respiratory problems.

All those losses paled into insignificance for Degenkolb at the loss of a member of his close-knit family.

"Before this Tour de France I gave an interview and I reflected one more time and I said, 'Actually I was never really happy that I was still alive, as I just took it as normal. Ok, we have an accident, it's ok, we keep going on'."

"Last year I had one big loss in our family. It was a super big tragic accident and you suddenly realise that life can all be over so quickly. I was happy that I was able to survive this accident and dedicate this victory to my friend."

"Everyone said I'm done, after this accident I wasn't coming back. I said 'no, I'm not done. I have to have one really big victory for this guy'." 

Moments after crossing the line, Degenkolb threw his hands up in the air with a joyful shout and pointed to the sky, clearly a sign to the departed that he had fufilled his promise to get back to his best, to prove the doubters wrong and be back at the top.

Degenkolb was asked to describe his emotions after the finish. What came out wasn't the polished soundbites of a media-trained athlete, but the honest answers of a man who was still feeling the exhilaration of the victory.  

"Pure happiness... really, I was chasing this victory so long. It's really hard to describe."

Later, with the chance to collect his thoughts, they were more fully-formed. 

"I was chasing this Tour de France victory for six years now," he said. "It never worked out, I was so many times close but I never succeeded. Then I got a huge setback, and another setback and another setback. It was a hard period, a hard time. Now, to get this victory... makes me speechless."

Now Degenkolb is indisputably back, winning on the biggest stage in tribute to his departed loved one.