The unassuming hotel on the highway between Ghent and Kortrijk has become something of a home away from home.

John Degenkolb has been staying here in the heart of Flanders since 2011, knows every bend, every cobblestone and probably every postman too. Degenkolb is still happy when he returns to the area, which is often windy and wet at this time of year, for around two weeks each year. The time is crowned with the so-called holy week of cycling, the brutal cobblestone classics Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

“I’m glad that the enthusiasm in me doesn’t level off. It’s always nice to be here,” says Degenkolb in an interview with the dpa. When the weather is really bad, the veteran feels good. It’s easy for him. And when Degenkolb sees photos of completely dirty and exhausted racers after the exertion, it’s like a kind of second reward. “You can’t even believe that you fought your way through it.”

With a laugh in Bruges

On Sunday, Degenkolb will no doubt be laughing again on Bruges’ market square and will be cheered on by the two-wheel-crazy Flemish people before the start of the Tour of Flanders. Here in the land of “De Ronde” they have long since grown fond of the robust classic specialists. In terms of sport, it was never enough for the Belgian national shrine to make a big splash, but with the victories at Gent-Wevelgem in 2014 and the historic success at Paris-Roubaix in 2015, Degenkolb left his mark.

The 34-year-old is no longer about winning. When a driver from your DSM team makes it into the top 20, you’re satisfied. “Everything else is too far away. The difference in performance at the very front is just too big, you have to be that realistic,” emphasizes Degenkolb. All experts agree that the big three will decide the victory among themselves, namely Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogacar.

Trio changed racing character

The trio is largely responsible for the fact that the character of the races has changed. Not so much the finale, in which everyone is on their toes. Rather, the way to get there. “There are always earlier attacks,” says Degenkolb. The final will now open 80 or 100 kilometers before the finish line. And not by speeding up the helpers, but by the captains themselves. If you’re in a bad position there, you can almost get into the team vehicle. “That’s impressive,” admits Degenkolb. There are simply drivers who can withstand this strain.

The increasingly tough races have an impact on the time in between. Eight or ten years ago you did longer training sessions, but now the focus is on regeneration. “You’re still so exhausted from the weekend that it doesn’t take a long session,” says Degenkolb. Especially since the races on the way to Ronde and Roubaix take place on a Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday basis.

Degenkolb is one of the captains in his team this year. That wasn’t necessarily planned, he should rather help the young Nils Eekhoff to improve his performance again. But the Dutchman is struggling with poor form and illnesses, so Degenkolb steps in. Last Sunday he finished twelfth in Gent-Wevelgem, which was characterized by apocalyptic weather.

“Let’s see what’s going on”

His real job is, if you will, to wear the team down to the best of their ability. “I have to split the team up so that we can tackle the finale with two or three drivers,” explains Degenkolb. Everyone should fulfill their task in such a way “that in the end they can’t say I could have done it”. The Tour of Flanders is something like the dress rehearsal for his favorite race a week later: Paris-Roubaix. “Let’s see what’s going on there. The condition is good, hopefully it stays that way,” says Degenkolb.

According to the locals, the headlines in Flanders should belong to van Aert anyway. The all-rounder has not managed to win either at the Ronde or in Roubaix. That should change this year – and the chances are good. The 28-year-old won the E3 prize, then patronizingly ceded victory at Wevelgem to his French team-mate Christophe Laporte. The latter enraged the great Eddy Merckx. “It’s his decision, but I wouldn’t have done it. He could have gone down in history,” said the 77-year-old. And the three-time Flanders winner Tom Boonen grumbled: “He will regret that.” However, if van Aert wins the round, all the mockery is quickly forgotten.