This is the third part of an extended interview with Brad McGee about his career, racing clean, working as a directeur sportif and other topics that have emerged in the last couple of months.
This time around, we talk about a rider who seems to be universally liked: Jens Voigt. In his final season as a professional rider, McGee was on the same team as the popular German but the pair had a long friendship that essentially began when they were living nearby each other in Labarthe-sur-Leze near Toulouse in the early-2000s. In 2001, the pair came first and second in the 16th stage of the Tour de France on a hot stage that finished in the village of Sarran… McGee’s recall of the day is impressive and, for the sake of including an actual reference to racing, he explains how he came to follow Jensie over the line for one of several runner-up results in a Tour stage…
The conversation starts with McGee reminiscing about the force of Riis’ troops in the season that Voigt first moved to CSC…
McGee: “Guys like Jens Voigt were just incredible.
RIDE: It’s interesting that you mention him. A lot of people said they would walk away if George Hincapie ever said he had anything to do with doping. He has now. But many more, I believe, would be devastated if, of all people, Jensie was implicated.
McGee: “Me too, and that’s just not going to happen because is just a natural-born killer on the bike.”
RIDE: Just for memories sake, can you talk about what happened on that day to Sarran in 2001 when you got second time Jens in a stage of the Tour de France?
McGee: “Oh, yes I can! I remember getting in that break and it took 75km for that breakaway to form and I missed it. I thought, ‘F—k!’ because I had Marc [Madiot] bellowing in my ear. ‘We’ve got to be in that break!’ There were about 14 guys in the move, maybe more, so it was like a split not an escape and I should have been in it – I was on fire that day. I knew that once the break was gone, Postal would just get to the front, shut it down and it would be game-over for the day.
“Even between his screams, Marc let us know there was a climb coming up. We had been on a long, false flat going down a hill and were going to turn right at the base of a couple-of-k kicker and I remember rushing to the front of the peloton. [Erik] Dekker was going down the left, and I was charging up the right… and we were looking at each other. We often played off each other in a situation like this. And I managed to just get underneath the Postal boys as they spanned out across the road to block it. That’s what they’d do. They were over it. They wanted the attacks to stop. They wanted to take a piss and get bottles.
“I skipped through on the dirt and banged around a right-hander, dropped the hammer and kept it in the big-ring going over the climb. I caught them guys in the lead just as I got to the top.
“As I’m coming up to the group, I’m looking at the riders thinking who might be the ones to beat if the move stayed away. I’m thinking, ‘Yes, got him covered. Okay, got you. Got you – no problems…’ and then it was like, ‘Oh no! Jensie!’
“He was on the front, driving it, of course. I thought, ‘This is going to be difficult!’
“There was a long way to go to the finish [of what was a 227.5km stage]. Sure enough, after making my appraisal, I told myself: ‘When shit comes to shove, I’m just going to follow Jens.’
“Near the end, there were a few mild attacks then boom! He went up the road. We were still about 25km away, maybe more and it was lumpy those last kilometres. I just followed Jens as he went away and I didn’t look back until I got to him. Then, when I turned around, I saw it: we were away. That was it. We were going to contest the stage: Jens Voigt and myself. All we had to do was stay on our bikes. But during the next 10 or 15 kilometres, Jens was just driving the pace!
“We were out of sight: gone! And I’m yelling at him, ‘Mate, just take it easy… woah, ease off a little.’ But Jens, being the killer that he is, just kept putting the hammer down – smashing the pedals like he hated them. In the end I had to go up and say, ‘Look Jens, I cannot keep coming through when you’re going like this.’
“He was like, ‘Don’t you bluff me! Don’t flick me!’
“I’m like, ‘Jensie… I’m honest here: I cannot come through.’
“He agreed to back it off and we made a quick pact that we’d work together, swap off and, with 500 metres to go, we’d get side by side and sprint to the line. It was fair enough. That’s some of the dynamic that people on the outside would never understand in cycling; it’s the way racing is and I think it makes it very interesting. It’s a political game just as much as it’s about the legs. And in that situation we had to continue our combined effort so we didn’t get caught and so we’d still have a chance to win the stage… but then we had to make some sort of an agreement that we were both able to have an even chance of winning. So that’s why we hatched the plan.
“Still, even at that pace, I was running out of legs fast. That’s when I started to blank out and there are large chunks of that final phase of that day that I don’t remember too well. I was hunger flatting… and so the pace was dropping and he was really egging me on: ‘Come on Brad, we know each other… you’re not going to flick me are you?’
“All being equal, I probably was faster than him in a sprint but by then, on that day, I couldn’t even respond to him. I think he looked at me with about a kilometre to go and he just went, ‘Oh, shit. You really are bad.’ Maybe I mumbled something. Maybe I just said, ‘Go man, it’s yours…’ I was just happy to get across the line.”
RIDE: It’s good to get your talking about that because it reminds us of why we watch cycling in the first place. It also explains something about his character. In that setting did you have a feeling that maybe he was doing something else, something you weren’t going to do?
McGee: “No. Absolutely not. There was no way. I knew Jens already. I lived near Toulouse with him in 2000. Look at his history: that guy has been tearing it to bits his whole life.”
RIDE: It still make sense to you to see him in the top 20 of a Tour de France time trial at the age of 41?
McGee: “Yep. He’s a Peter Pan. He doesn’t age. He’s an absolute freak. It’s just really about where his daily motivation is at, you know? Sure, he’s fatiguing more now; you see less of him through the seasons but when he decides to put it together he still can.
“I remember in the Tour of Germany one year, we were coming up to a cat-one or HC climb. He was leading on GC but there were eight or nine climbing specialists who were snapping around looking for his leader’s jersey. He was riding along just talking to himself, just saying, “Yes Jensie! You are strong enough Jensie! You can do this Jensie! You can do this!’ He’s talking to himself in the third-person and was absolutely freaking the hell out of the whole group that was around him but he didn’t give a shit. He was doing whatever he had to do to get himself ready to get up this hill and keep the lead. And he did. He held on. He did enough to win the race. He’s an extraordinary bike rider.”
RIDE: I think a lot of people will like to hear that. But a lot of people would like to hear that about Lance or Tyler or Levi…
McGee: “Sure. And this is where a lot of what’s coming out of what I’ve written [in the Fairfax Media article] is that people are looking for other people to come out and confess. Please understand, it drained me to write that piece. I didn’t want to do it: I wanted to be on my farm with my kids, looking after the pigs and riding my mountain bike. But I feel compelled to say something and I’m happy that I’m actually able to do so. And that’s why I’m obliged to do it.
“With Jensie, I couldn’t see him doping for several reasons… one, I couldn’t see him being able to put it out in his own words and explain that he took that option. Two, he would have had so many open questions to himself. ‘How would I get involved without maybe disturbing my close mates?’ He’d best asking himself, ‘What difference could I really make? Is it worth it? Probably not…’ And he decided: ‘I’ll just continue to do what I do: race hard, clean.’
“He’s been vocal in the past about the whole doping thing. He’s very against it and his story would be very interesting to hear: it’d make a fantastic book.
“He comes from the east – the old Eastern Bloc…. a unique specimen and the last of a generation.”
In part four (coming soon), McGee talks about the role of a directeur sportif in modern cycling and how they interact with the riders, doctors and other staff….
A big thanks to all who contributed to the discussion: many of your questions will also be answered by McGee soon.
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