Despite being a true man of the people – or perhaps because of it – getting face time with Jens Voigt is a difficult proposition. He is constantly engaged in good-natured banter with fans, media and other Pro Tour members, and is perpetually late for something. At this year’s Tour Down Under Bicycling Australia magazine’s Marcus Speed finally managed to pin down the affable German star long enough to chat about his enormous popularity, the future and his place within the peloton of legends.
Voigt is precisely like his public persona: full of energy and fun, with an arsenal of jokes and stories of life on the road, he is also incredibly hard to pin down – it’s almost as if, even at rest and away from his bike, he’s still looking for the opportunity to form a brave and foolhardy solo breakaway.
Is this why you’re such a fan favourite – what you see is what you get?
“Pretty much”, he grins. “You get the real me, every single day. I really do say ‘SHUT UP LEGS!’ and I really do enjoy suffering like a pig. That’s what people can’t understand about me. I like pain. Pain has made me the rider I am today. The more pain I put myself through in training and racing, the better I get. If I am not riding with my old friend pain then I am not going hard enough. I like to constantly talk back to the pain when it is shouting at me to slow down. For me, it is always really rewarding when I finish a ride knowing that I ignored all that yelling the pain was doing.
“During races I say to myself ‘OK Jensie, you are a good rider and if this hurts you this much then everybody else around you must be close to quitting, too’. Nothing can keep me apart from my old friend pain – it keeps me going, it keeps me young.”
On the subject of staying young, at 42 you are the oldest rider in the peloton. It appears that you don’t seem to feel your age – are there any advantages to being the most senior rider on the road?
“Sure, plenty of advantages. One of them is that when I mount an attack now, lots of the guys look at each other and say ‘Oh, that’s just crazy old Jensie. Let him go, we’ll catch him soon enough’. Usually they do too, but sometimes – only sometimes! – I get to stay away and teach them all a lesson!”
Voigt’s eyes light up at this – it seems the very concept of a solo effort has him energised and combat-ready.
Well, you nearly got away today… (on Willunga Hill, the penultimate stage of the Tour Down Under).
“Ha! My attack was doomed from the beginning! It was never going to work today, but what can you do? It’s my nature to attack, and one thing is for sure in bike racing – if you attack, you might win and you might not, but if you don’t go for it then you definitely won’t win.”
But getting back to today’s effort – what was going through your head? Surely you must have felt, at least for a moment, that you could stay away and win?
“When I was with Trentin and Ignatiev on the first lap I thought there was a slight chance we could survive, but then I attacked them when we crested the hill! It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. If they couldn’t withstand my attack we wouldn’t have been strong enough to stay away. So away I went on my own. I knew they would catch me, but I like to make life hard for everybody when I can, so I stayed away as long as I could. I could sense them closing in on me but I refuse to look back – when have you ever seen me look over my shoulder? Never! I don’t do it. I won’t give them the satisfaction – I just keep hammering away with my poor old legs until I get swallowed up. I was probably never going to be allowed to win today, but I did get the award for Most Aggressive rider – pretty cool, hey?”
What is it about you that makes you ride so aggressively?
“It’s a few different things really. Like I said before, if you are not a true sprinter then the only chance you will ever have to go for the win is to attack – what else can you do? I like the attention, I like being out in front, and of course the sponsors like it too. So put all that stuff together and what do you get? You get me, out in front, suffering like a crazy person and enjoying every minute of it, all the attention, all the fun, and knowing I am putting the hurt on everyone else out there, making them suffer even more than I am!”
You obviously enjoy racing in Australia – apart from the Tour Down Under, what are your favourite races?
“We all tend to enjoy the races where we have ridden well. The Critérium International is a race I have always loved…and I’ve won it five times! And the Tour of California – my win in Stage 5 last year is one I will always remember, because I not only won it on my own but I had to be sneaky about it. I knew I couldn’t beat the other guys in the break in a pure sprint so with 5km to go I attacked again, and I managed to get away because I knew the roads were very twisty and I could get out of sight quickly. And it worked – fantastic!”
After nearly two decades in the Pro peloton you must have some memories you’re not so fond of – what’s the least happy day in the saddle you can remember?
“Well…” he says thoughtfully. “I’ve had plenty of big crashes, and I didn’t enjoy a single one of them! I think, though, that the worst experience I’ve had was having German fans boo me back in 2004 after I chased down Ullrich in Stage 15 of Le Tour. What got to me so much was that, OK, I chased down a fellow German rider, but I was doing my job. I was riding for Basso (team CSC) and my job was to come back from my breakaway and shut the race down. When Ullrich went, I had to go too. Was the German cycling federation paying my wages? No! CSC were, and that’s who I worked for, so I did my job. What made me even madder was everyone conveniently seemed to forget the 2000 Olympic road race, where I helped Ullrich take the gold. So yeah, that really pissed me off!”
Ok – your most interesting day as a pro cyclist?
“Probably the time in 2010 at the Tour de France when I borrowed the kids’ bike after I crashed. It seems everyone knows the story – both our team cars were at the front of the break, so I had to borrow this tiny bike and I rode it for about 15km. At the bottom of the descent was a policeman who had my bike that the team car had left with him, so I got back on and chased like hell. It was a funny situation and plenty of people got a laugh out of it, but it was also a triumph of sorts for me. I had to work so hard to catch the stragglers, then make it to the grupetto to avoid being eliminated from the race. For hours and hours I suffered, and being allowed to race again the next day was my reward!
And what does the future hold for Jens Voigt? You have said this will “probably maybe” be your last season, and your last rides in the TDU and the Tour de France…
“Last year definitely was the hardest Tour de France I ever rode, and part of that just came from the fact that I am older. For racers, no matter how good you think you are, or how high you flew during your career, there one day comes a point where the body says, ‘Hey—I’m not going to put up with this anymore!’. I feel like I am getting there, but I am still good at telling myself to shut up and ride, so I signed up for one more year of competition. I see myself being an important part of the support network at Trek. We have some great young guys here, and I think I can help them make smart decisions as their careers move forward. Trek have told me there is a position within the team for me after I stop racing, so I hope it won’t feel like I’ve stopped being a pro bike rider, just that I’ve taken on a new role. That’s a load off my mind – I’ve never had another job, so knowing I have something to look forward to after my racing is over is just what I need.
I’ve been so lucky – I am one of those few people who turned their passion into a profession. But things always change. Nowadays I still love to race, but there are times when I wake up in the morning and think to myself ‘Nobody would know if I stayed in bed today instead of training. I’ve done so much training over so long, what would it hurt to miss one day?’. Of course I can’t afford to think like that, but those thoughts creep in sometimes and I need to force them out. The motivation is getting harder now, and the racing and travelling takes me away from my family, but I am not complaining! I have the best job ever. So I’ll race as hard as I can this year, prepare as if I’m riding the Tour in July, and see what happens.”
So we’ll see you again in Australia?
“For sure – one way or another, I’ll be back!”