Vélo Files: Catch Him If You Can

Anthony Tan

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For the second year running, he’s the oldest licensed rider in the WorldTour peloton. But as Anthony Tan writes, nothing’s going to slow Jens Voigt down. Not yet, anyway.

I’m mother f**king Jens Voigt so they’re not going to catch me.

If only one could clone ‘The Jensie’. Or bottle it up and make Andy Schleck skol copious quantities of it till he’s inebriated beyond belief, drunk on The Jensie.

In January last year, at the Santos Tour Down Under, I interviewed Jens Voigt at length for US cycling publication VeloNews. Then aged 40, he told me that, “Nobody likes to get old, but I can still keep up, so it’s all good”.

“Cycling is too hard a sport to do it for the money. You’ve got to have the passion. The willingness to do it… the desire to go. And I still have that. It’s not a tiny little spark in the dark, but a full-on burning flame, the passion that I have (for cycling).”

Still, the father of six admitted that sometimes, it’s hard to get out and go training every day, especially when one of his older kids goads him by saying, ‘Daddy, we won’t tell anybody. Nobody’s going to find out if you just stay home…’

“And it’s true: nobody would find out if I just skipped a day of training,” he says.

“But that’s how (the decline) starts. Next time you skip two days. Next time you skip a week. Then, yes, people find out… You come to the next race; people see you haven’t been training.”

I tell him that the last two years in particular, I notice he attacks less. I wonder if it’s an age thing, but not willing to get my head smashed in by The Irrepressible One, I let him explain why.

“(I’m) definitely not less aggressive,” he says, grinning.

“You know, when you get older, you (can either) turn out into a wiser, mired old man, or just an angry old man. And I think I’d rather turn into the second. I’m not getting much wiser, I’m afraid.

“I do attack less, because my role has changed. I’m not so much the guy that needs or wants to perform, or people don’t ask me to perform – (such as) going in breakaways, stage wins… whatever.

“The way I see it, your career is like a big circle. You come in, you learn from the older ones. Then you get your top shape, where you take – ‘Hey, ride for me, help me to win’. And then, towards the end of your career, you’ve got to give something back; you were taking a lot in the years when you at the top, (so it becomes) time to give something back to the next leader.

“And I am happy to do that, to balance it out in life. You shouldn’t always be taking in life – you should also be giving. So now, it’s just my turn to give back. So, yes, I do attack less, because it’s not my job anymore. My role has changed.”

It took the US Anti-Doping Agency’s Reasoned Decision dossier last October for the old Jensie to return. Team manager Johan Bruyneel was shackled, you could say.

Someone on RadioShack-Leopard had to show the way out.

In fact, Voigt was enraged even before the demise of Lance Armstrong and his associates, since one of his two unfulfilled ambitions is to get one of Schleck brothers to Paris in yellow; with Andy out even before the 2012 Tour began and Fränk testing positive for a diuretic during the race and thrown out, The Jensie started to simmer. To their credit, the team bandied together and came away with the teams classification at La Grande Boucle, along with Fabian Cancellara’s prologue victory in Liège.

Exactly one month later, on the fourth stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado, Voigt channeled his anger and ended up in a one-man breakaway that would last 140 kilometres. Try as they did, the remnants of the peloton would finish three minutes or more behind. “Whatever makes the race sticky and nasty is good for me because it hurts the others more than me,” he said afterwards, adding that he was happy that he could “not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk”.

“Jens is the only guy in the world who could pull that off,” Tejay van Garderen later said. “He’s just that crazy.”

When the USADA bombshell dropped two months later, the Twitterverse began to question the entire peloton, including Voigt. Product of the East German sports system; was winning during cycling’s dark days; recruited by Bjarne Riis, then Johan Bruyneel… he had to be doping.

On October 30, two weeks after USADA’s Reasoned Decision was made public, Voigt wrote an impassioned column in Bicycling, titled ‘Turbulent Times’.

“Some of you might even be asking yourself, ‘Oh my god, is Jens next?’ I can answer that question easy and quickly: No! There is nothing to confess or admit in my career, so relax, people. There is no bad news coming from my side,” he wrote.

“With what we know today about the East German sports system, it’s clear that there was a fair amount of doping and it was actually put in place by the government. But I was lucky because before I was old enough, or good enough, to be confronted with the question, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and Germany was reunited.”

Voigt, too, thought the Festina Affair of 1998 would be a turning point for cycling, but “history has shown us that Festina was not enough”.

“I can tell you that on my French team (GAN, later called Crédit Agricole), doping was a no-go. The French teams were the first to install the longitudinal testing that would eventually become the biological passport. Now, I had some good wins in those years, but hey,” he protested, “I’m a good rider, so I should have some good wins!”

When Operación Puerto saw his then team leader Ivan Basso thrown out on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France, he responded thus when asked what should be done with the 200 names: “Take them all out of their hiding places and burn them.”

After reading Bradley McGee’s column, ‘How dopers stole the best years of my career’, published a few days before his, Voigt remarked: “I can only agree. I mean, fortunately I still managed to get three stage wins, but who knows what else I would have achieved if everybody would have been clean! A 10-time Tour de France stage winner sounds a lot better to me than three-time winner. But to be honest, I don’t want to contemplate such things for too long because it only makes me bitter. It poisons my soul.

“And to avoid the impression that I don’t want talk about the past, or want hide my past, here I am saying very loudly: keep my samples, test them, and re-test them, in 10 years or in 100 years from now. Go back in time and open my sample from five years ago or 10 years ago. Feel free to do so! There will never be any surprises because I have nothing to hide.”

Voigt insisted cycling is cleaner than it has ever been. “I don’t see any traces of team-organized doping or doping networks anymore. You can probably never stop people from making wrong choices, but, honestly, our sport is better and cleaner than it was ever before. This is something I am totally convinced of. Hey, just look at me! I am 41 years old and still here, still competitive.”

On Thursday at the Tour of California, comprising a 186km stage from Santa Barbara to Avila Beach, Jens Voigt, 41 years young and still here, showed he was not just competitive, but he was still a winner. And mad as hell.

“I think maybe the last time I was feeling good was when I was 21,” he quipped with typically desert-dry humour.

On his decision to leave his breakaway companions five kilometres from the line, who he had been with for the past 60 kilometres, Voigt rationalised the situation like so: “There were some quality riders in the (breakaway) group. To win from that group, I knew I would have to go alone. I had hopes they would look at one another to chase me and give me 20 seconds. Once you do that, I’m gone. Once I went and then looked back to see the gap, I couldn’t believe they had given me 20-seconds.”

Once he was away, he told Bicycling.com’s Joe Lindsey post-stage: “I’m mother f**king Jens Voigt so they’re not going to catch me.”

Then, to the assembled media, another deadpan joke: “I have been doing the same moves for a long time in my career, almost since the last ice age.”

“They know what my plan is and that I cannot win a sprint. You have to catch them by surprise. That’s why it works. Sometimes they underestimate me. Today it worked in my favour. I will also say that I do still have some ‘go-power’ left in my legs. Not every day like five or ten years ago. But once I’m out there and can smell the victory, I want it again.

“I have a big engine; I can handle a big work load. I’m willing to work hard. I think this instinct is just part of who I am. It’s hard to teach because the decision-making is done in just a split second. It’s like a voice talking in your head, saying, ‘Go now! Go now! Go now!’ And then listening to the voice. I try to teach the boys to be brave, be courageous. On Sunday night if you have some energy left, it’s too late. There is no stage on Monday. Get it all out now. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be intimidated.

“I like to call this the ‘Indian Summer’ of my career, not the twilight. Think how beautiful it is in Indian Summer. That’s where I am, in the Indian Summer of my career. Yes, I hate to admit it, I am getting older, and my career will come to an end one day. For the second year in a row I am the oldest licensed holder in the world. The oldest bike rider! But age is just a number, apparently. I think that you can’t only talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. If you can do that, there is no reason to stop or slow down or give it up.”

Asked about earning himself another year’s contract with the win, he answered emphatically: “I hope so! If someone asks me if I am ready to sign again for another year, I say, ‘Hell yeah!’”

As for the other unfulfilled ambition Voigt told me?

“Finish alone on Alpe d’Huez. But it ain’t gonna happen.”

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