Later this year one of the most popular riders in the world will be in Australia, travelling around the land sharing stories of his time as a professional cyclist – and, of course, other anecdotes from his life on the bike over the past 25 or so years.
Jens Voigt will join Phil Liggett – and a range of others from the cycling world – in what will be known ‘The Tour on Stage’.
Taking in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, the roadshow is sure to attract cycling enthusiasts who appreciate the work of both the German cycling and British commentator.
Promoted by Lateral Events (and presented by SBS) we can safely assume that Voigt will steal the show. He likes to talk. And talk. And talk…! Thankfully, he’s got a special way with words and a healthy collection of yarns, some of which are well practiced, others that just emerge without much need for prompting.
The father of six was raised as a cyclist in a sporting school when Germany was still divided into East and West.
His eldest son is now 19 and, Voigt Snr confesses, he doesn’t understand what is so special about the fact that their home country is no longer divided. The collapse of the Berlin Wall when Jens was 18 had a major impact on his life; it opened up the world to a rider on the verge of international success.
He raced on the road and track – and even cyclocross – while still at school and it was on the road that he carved out a long and impressive career – winning titles of small races as well as stages of Grand Tours and wearing leader’s jerseys – in a span that lasted over two decades.
He got his start as a professional with an Australian team and carved out a niche role as super-domestique for a range of teams through to his retirement at the end of last year.
Always a competitor, he wanted to bow out in style and thus became the first to take on – and beat – the hour record in a long time. After riding 51.115km in an hour, he became what he is now: an ex-pro cyclist.
We caught up over the phone when he was in Berlin on Wednesday morning this week. He was wandering around his home preparing to fix a cupboard door that had been wrecked by one of his four daughters but he still found the time to remind himself of some of the accomplishments as a racer.
He’s happy to chat and it’s easy for him to jump from one topic to another and have an anecdote of how he fit into that part of cycling’s history. He presents as an adamant anti-doping crusader and always insists his reputation will remain in tact even if he raced alongside many who have been tarnished over the years.
Talk to him about drugs though, and the happy tone is replaced by a frustrated one: “Ah jeez, I thought only the Germans talk about that all the time,” he snapped.
“Doping is part of our sport,” I replied, “you’re not afraid of talking about it and we’re used to it now.” But he was clearly annoyed that the topic emerged.
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I first met Jens Voigt in 1994 when he raced alongside the defending champion in the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic. Within a few years, his team-mate at that time, Jan Ullrich, and Voigt would make their debut appearance in the Tour de France. By 1997 one of the young Germans would win the maillot jaune… but it wouldn’t be long before the champion was disgraced and the domestique became a spokesman of his generation.
We’d speak often throughout the course of his career – sometimes as part of formal interviews, other times in off-the-record exchanges that offered insight, wit and humour as is his trait. He always seems energetic, enthusiastic and interested in sharing his knowledge even if he does admit, at times, to being tired from racing, parenthood, or the ordinary obstacles that tend to bog us all down at times.
Above all, however, Jens Voigt is an optimist. He’s become an ambassador for a brand, a commentator in his own right, and he’s likely to remain a part of the cycling world for many more years.
There’s a lot of talk yet to come this November as part of ‘The Tour on Stage’ but before we get there, here is part one of the chat we had on 23 September 2015, a week after Voigt turned 44 and 370 days after his final ride as a professional.
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RIDE: I’m just having a quick chat to Jens Voigt about his upcoming ‘Tour on Stage’ visit to Australia when he’s going to spend some time talking about cycling and his career. What are you expecting from this whole shebang? Do you think you’re going to get big crowds?
Jens Voigt: “Well, I definitely hope so because I’m travelling a long way to get there – you know, 20,000 miles – so I hope that we get a good crowd and that we can entertain the people.
“I believe it will be fairly casual. I mean Phil Liggett is actually pretty good and [I expect] we’ll be having an interesting talk… we’re going to entertain the people, tell them about life as a cyclist, family life with my six kids, about the way the travel goes, the way that cycling has become more global, maybe we’ll touch on the Tour Down Under… so hopefully there’ll be great crowds and it’ll be entertaining.”
You’ve always been the entertainer in the cycling world but this year you had a different taste of it. You had to talk to people instead of ride in front of them. What was your experience like? What was the take home from your first year as a commentator?
“I did commentate at the Tour of California a little bit and then, as my main job so to speak, during the Tour de France.
“I’ve done the Tour de France 17 times – together with Stuey [O’Grady] and George Hincapie – and only now, this year, I realised what a fascinating, hard, incredibly demanding sport it is.
“I mean, when I watched the guys coming across the finish line – because I was always positioned at the finish line – man, when I looked at their faces, I asked myself: ‘How the hell did I do that 17 times!’
“It is an insane adventure.
“When you see the people at the team presentation, they are just full of hope and high spirits and in the peak shape of their life, and then you see them in the last week and some of the faces… you go, ‘Oh my god, did I ever look that tired? Did I look so bad?’
“I only now realise what an incredible adventure the Tour de France is and how hard and demanding and merciless – almost inhumane – of a bike race it is. It gave me a lot of respect for everyone who finishes in Paris.
“Seeing it for the first time in my life from the other side – not in the tunnel vision of a cyclist where you live day by day, stage by stage – but to see it from the outside, it is really amazing how hard these guys work. And also how big the Tour de France is. I mean there are 200 bike riders, or whatever… at the start but that is the smallest number of all the people. There are far more mechanics, team directors, journalists, TV people… it’s unbelievable how big of an operation the Tour de France is. They move a small city every single day – it is really impressive.”
Did it give you a new respect for yourself and all that you achieved in those 17 years of racing the Tour?
“Definitely yes, it did. It also helped me not only respect the guys now more than ever but also reflecting about myself and how I managed to go through this 17 times and what drove me to try to be part of this beautiful but also brutal adventure.
“It is basically the best of the best at the start line. You have, roughly, 1,500 professional bike riders in the world and only 200 of them can make it into the Tour de France teams. It is a very select group of people who can actually manage to do the [race]… it’s just so brutal with the crashes and the crosswinds of the first week, then the mountains, then more mountains… it’s unbelievable how hard it is.”
When you see that brutality from a fresh perspective, does it – how do I put this politely? I can’t put it politely. Do you now see why people resorted to doping?
“Ah jeez, I thought only the Germans talk about that all the time.”
No… you see it from a fresh perspective, a different angle, how they come in. And doping is part of our sport, you’re not afraid of talking about it and we’re used to it now – so it’s not like I’m bringing in a scandal. But I’m trying to ask: are you surprised that people did resort to that?
“Well, I guess doping starts already earlier. People probably take dope to make it into the Tour team, to be able to perform on the big stage and get bigger contracts. I think it already starts before…
“But yes, the Tour is a very, very hard event and, talking about doping, it may be too hard for some riders and then they might be tempted to look for some help outside of training.
“For years I’ve been saying no mountain stage should be longer than 180 [kilometres] and no flat stage should be longer than 200. There should be limits; it should be doable.
“The Tour de France, they already react to it. We’ve had a lot of shorter mountain stages which, by the way, are easier to survive physically but it [also] makes for great cycling because on a shorter stage, the tactics start a lot earlier – to go into the attack mode. The teams start to move earlier in the race instead of having, say, a 240 kilometre mountain stage where they are paralysed with fear because the stage is so long and brutal… they don’t race for the first 100 kilometres, but if the stage is only 140 kilometres long, they have no time to waste if they want to make a time difference.
“It’s a lot more interesting racing if you make the stages a little shorter. A lot more things happen, it’s easier for the riders to survive it, the teams like it better, the TV likes it better because there’s more to talk about – there’s more action, the sponsors like it better because the ratings go up because more people watch it… so we should go away from these marathon-like distances because it just doesn’t make sense anymore in this modern day and age.”
…You talk about the racing when it used to be really long stages where there was that ‘passive’ first hour. That was when you were on the attack. That’s how you made your reputation, really, as The Big Escape man – The Unstoppable Jens Voigt. Do you think it would be different now? How would you cope with these shorter stages? Would you still be the breakaway, opportunist guy that you were?
“I hope you have enough tape, that’s another long answer…
“First of all, to me sometimes it is amazing – or surprising – that to the general cycling fan I am more known because I failed many times in the Tour de France to win a stage. That is sort of like the image that a lot of people have of me.
“Not many people know that I won the Tour of Bavaria three times or that I won that little French race, the Tour du Poitou-Charentes, two times…
“I’m not known for my wins. I’m probably known for my big epic failures in front of millions of people watching me going, ‘Come on Jens, you can make it… aargh, they’re catching him!’
“That is my image: the guy that never gives up, the guy that goes a long way to try and win something.
“That is how I did my career because I was never a top sprinter, I could never beat Robbie McEwen or Mark Cavendish in a sprint.
“I can never beat Cadel Evans in a mountain top.
“I can never beat Cancellara in a time trial.
“So I had to do something else if I want to have success.
“Unfortunately all that is given to me by my nature is a big engine and a desire to win.
“I had to go the long way, the uncomfortable way: whatever made the race sticky and hard was good for me. When everybody was with the nose to the meat grinder, that was good for me – then I could win.
“My career was made by these events, trying to force luck on my side, trying to make my own destiny.
“And now, closing the circle to today, cycling is better today. There’s more security, better salaries, the teams take better care of the riders, there is some social security and some insurance… there are big team buses, the teams have their own cooks to take care of nutrition and all of that. So the life of the cyclist is not necessarily ‘easier’ in terms of physical suffering but the surrounding environment tries to make it as easy and as perfect as possible for the bike rider.
“But it’s also a lot more professionally organised so a guy like me who goes in a breakaway whenever he feels like it, there are not many teams that have a space for me anymore these guys. They go, ‘Jens we like you but actually, no – we don’t want you in a breakaway, we want you to chase the break down for Cav.’ Or, ‘We want you to prepare the pavé section for Tom Boonen.’ Or, ‘We want you to get Cancellara through today’s stage so that he’s fresh for the time trial…’
“No, in the modern cycling, there is not much space for people like me who can just go in a break whenever they want to go.
“Everything is really perfectly – up to the smallest details – planned: ‘Rider B, you do 22km at 375 watts. Rider D, you do 15km at 386 watts. Rider C, you 10km at 400 watts…’
“I could do all of these things but it’s not my style, it’s not my nature and so I think I actually just go out in time.
“I’m a dinosaur. There’s not much space anymore for people like me. I’m a dinosaur from an old period where people would race on instinct or they would race on guts. Nowadays it’s all science: ‘Okay, you can do this many watts for this many kilometres and then you’ll burn that many calories, so you do this and this and this…’
“I could do it but I would need to work and change my attitude so it’s good the way it is, that I am out. I have had my time. I had a good period of cycling. But then modern cycling has changed.
“The young kids they hardly walk down the driveway without counting their calories and looking at their SRM – their power system. But I hardly ever used that really.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
— End part 01 —