With Jens Voigt now retired, he looks back on the highs and lows of his Tour de France career with the help of some iconic photos to jog his memory
On the first rest day of the Tour, Procycling caught up with Trek Factory Racing’s Jens Voigt to accompany the 43-year-old on a journey down memory lane. The German has been a fixture at the Tour since he first took part in 1998: he made it to every Grand Départ since and completed all but three Tours.
And in those 17 years, he tasted plenty of success: stints in the yellow jersey and a brace of stage wins, not to mention the consummate CSC team performance of 2008, when all nine riders made it all the way to Paris and the team won both the yellow and white jerseys.
And along the way, Voigt became one of the most recognisable and loved riders in the peloton thanks to his fearsome attacks, irrepressible good humour and memorable sound bites. Indeed, it’s likely his greatest legacy to cycling will not be his palmarès but the personality he brought to the Tour.
Armed with a selection of photos from some of the veteran racer’s most notorious moments at la Grande Boucle, we asked Voigt to talk about the memories that the pictures evoked. So, from his first stage victory and horror crash in 2009 to his final moment in the Tour limelight as a KOM jersey holder in Yorkshire, these are recently retired and much-loved Jens Voigt’s Tour moments.
First day in yellow
I got in a breakaway when we already had Stuart O’Grady in yellow. We saw guys like Laurent Jalabert and Ivan Basso – a very young Ivan Basso – jumping up the road to join us. Towards the end Basso crashed on a descent coming into the finish and broke his collarbone. I just braked and swerved around but three or four seconds of braking was enough for Jalabert to attack – and no one chases Jaja on a descent. At least not me. I’m a limited descender as it is, and when he has 40 or 50 metres on you, you just say, “Okay, I’ll settle for second.” That was 14 July – Journée de Bastille.
That night, a band gathered at the hotel and they played tunes for me when I arrived after anti-doping control and the press conference. That night was the first of only two times time in my life I went to the doctor and asked for a sleeping pill. My head was so beat up and I had a heart rate of around 120 at midnight. I just went to him and I said, “Doctor, I need something, I’m so excited.”
In those days we didn’t have so much access to the internet or WhatsApp and I had like 65 texts. My mailbox was jammed. I was up until midnight punching replies on my old phone!
First stage win
Yes, this officially changed my career for the better. I was officially a bigger rider after that. The next day I had the big heroes of the day – guys like Mario Cipollini and Johan Museeuw – coming up to me. Mario was all like, “Hey! Ciao! Yeah!” You felt immediately that you had gained a whole lot more respect and people recognised you as one of them – part of the club as a Tour de France stage winner.
Look, no helmet. I did start the day with a helmet but when the break got away I took it off because the risk of crashing was not that big. In the final, lucky for me, Bradley McGee suffered a hunger flat. He was just completely empty towards the end. My director was still like, “Jens, don’t work too hard – he’s going to out-sprint you.” But I knew I had it under control.
Letting it slip away
We had it all in our hands that day: the stage win and keeping the yellow jersey. David Zabriskie had the jersey from the prologue by beating Lance by two seconds.
I remember that day because we went so fast. We constantly did 65kph and the entire team was just so strong. We were perfectly circling and we were never more than four or five seconds from US Postal. Then in the last 1.5km Dave crashed and in the five seconds it took us to make the decision to carry on, we lost the yellow jersey and the stage.
In those days I was at my peak, so I wasn’t scared of the TTT. That day it was dry and that helped a lot. Lately, team time trials with Fabian Cancellara have been the most terrifying things imaginable. With him you can see where the top of the world is and also the bottom. The only thing that helps is to look further down the line and realise that I’m not the last.
It’s a spectacular discipline. It’s a great event because it shows the harmony in the team and how people suffer for each other and try to achieve things together.
Voigt on the attack
The real hardcore cycling fan will know I won the Tour of Bavaria three times and the Tour of Poitou-Charentes twice but the larger general public know me for this – going in silly breakaways without any chance of success.
The teams I rode for like it that I won a few races but for the Tour de France when I was in teams that didn’t have a top sprinter or a GC rider I had the freedom to do this, these crazy attacks. I’ve said it many times: if you get in the break you have maybe a 10 per cent chance but if you don’t go you have zero chance. A lot of people weren’t willing to put in the effort for such a little chance but I was never shy of hard work.
After a while I realised people really liked that I would do the Tour and fight against all the odds. People like the underdog, the guy who has no chance but who doesn’t give in. But here’s the thing: sometimes it did work – I’d get a mountain jersey or a stage win, like I did on this day.
It worked often enough so that when I came to the front the guys still feared me. People called me the ‘Elvis of Breakaways’ and hey, Elvis was the king!
I was only out for three or four minutes but when I came around I wasn’t really with it. I asked B.S. Christiansen, the guy in the photo: “Is it bad?” He said no and I said, “Okay, then put me back on my bike. I’ve got to finish the Tour – only four more days to go.”
I never thought of retiring after that crash – I would have felt like a quitter. I never wanted to be remembered as the guy who had the bad crash and then stopped. Even in the hospital afterwards I was okay. They stitched me together but I could move my toes and I knew I just needed time to repair. I’m a big fan of the idea that you make your own destiny and I wanted to be on top of it and I wanted to be able to decide when was the right moment to retire – not some freak accident.
Mountains jersey, Yorkshire
As a neo-pro in ’98 I took the mountains jersey and in my last year I took it again. I like the symmetry in it. I thought about that in the team meeting and we said if there’s a chance we can get in the break without too much effort we’re going to have this jersey tonight.
So at the start, I was basically sitting in the door of Christian Prudhomme’s car at kilometre zero, bouncing off the fender. I was ready to go for it when the attack went. At the first KOM I realised the rest of the guys were fresher and younger than me, so I had to do something else: that’s why I went off on my 60km solo.
That’s the thing: they may look like crazy breakaways but usually there is a plan. As I grew I learnt my strengths: my big engine and my ability to suffer for a long time, so that not everybody wants to follow me.
At the start of the after-party we were sitting there with a quiet beer and I said, “You know boys, we should all stop now – it can never get better than this.” In my 17 tours I think I brought all nine guys to Paris only three times.
We were all happy and healthy. We’d won the Tour, won the team GC, we had the white jersey, and there was the Arc de Triomphe behind us with the setting sun in the background. We could never be that happy and strong and relaxed again. That year, we were just so much stronger than anybody else. We just looked at people and they wouldn’t dare attack.
If we have to pinpoint just one or two moments from my career when I was happiest, this was one of them. Everybody sacrificed: Fränk sacrificed the yellow jersey on L’Alpe d’Huez, Andy sacrificed the chance to win the stage – it was all for Carlos.
This article originally appeared in Procycling magazine.