Book review: "Man muss kämpfen" by Jens Voigt, April 19, 2008
Jens Voigt is a true fighter and his professional career is defined by his trademark breakaway rides that don't always work out but have netted him a lot of victories and even allowed him to wear the polka-dot and yellow jersey in the Tour de France. Cyclingnews' Susan Westemeyer looked at the German's biography and summarises Voigt's professional life.
"Where do I get the motivation for my long escapes?" asked Jens Voigt in his autobiography "Man muss kämpfen" (You have to fight), and promptly gave an answer. "At some point, you have to be honest with yourself as an athlete and recognise: I can do this, but I can't do that. I can't win a sprint against a Petacchi or a Cipollini, nor a mountaintop finish against a Lance Armstrong or a Gilberto Simoni. So I have to see to it that I do something else if I want to win – and I do want to win, that is clear. I am an ambitious rider, I am an ambitious person."
" I can't win a sprint against a Petacchi or a Cipollini, nor a mountaintop finish against a Lance Armstrong or a Gilberto Simoni." -Voigt explains the motivation for his breakaway attempts.
Voigt presents his philosophy and his life in an autobiography, published last summer in Germany and only available in German. It is, unfortunately, a rather superficial look at the subject, a series of short chapters, more or less chronological. He presents no new information, no strong convictions, no insights, and very few criticisms.
For example, his main reaction to Ivan Basso's exclusion from the Tour de France 2006 was disappointment. "Our whole plan, our idea for the season, for the race, for the overall win in the Tour de France – from one moment to the next it was all for nothing! My great goal, which had run through my head like a film, was suddenly gone." He doesn't have any words at all about Basso's involvement with Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, or any comment on his views on the doping scandal.
It was not the first doping scandal in a Tour de France that Voigt had been exposed to. He started the 1998 Tour de France for Team GAN (which became Crédit Agricole), and writes long about his success at the Tour. He finished second in the ninth stage, as part of a breakaway, of course, and took over the polka-dot jersey. He was only able to wear it one day. But by then, the Festina scandal had broken. "How do you feel when the police stands at your room door at midnight and ask questions? You are riding the Tour de France and are so happy, 'Wow, my dream is coming true,' and then it turns into a nightmare!" he wrote.
In his only comment on doping, he goes on to note that the theme of doping is everywhere in sports. "But that there were some teams there, which had a whole car full of doping products – I really hadn't figured with that. The question went through my head whether I had picked out the right profession. But then I said to myself, I'm not going to let my career be ruined by such black sheep. I wanted to keep on fighting and thereby show that you could also do it without doping. Doping doesn't come into question for me. How would I ever be explain that later to my children?"
Another low point in his career was during the 2004 Tour de France. By this time he had joined Team CSC and was riding in support of captains Ivan Basso and Carlos Sastre. In the 15th stage, Jan Ullrich took off on an escape, endangering not only CSC but also Lance Armstrong. Voigt himself had been in a breakaway group, and let himself fall back to support Basso. Once back by his captain, he led the charge to catch Ullrich, which they did shortly before the finish line. "Too bad for him, good for us, that's the way the Tour is. I had done my job."
But what he had seen as just doing his job was seen otherwise by the rabid Ullrich fans, who saw only that Voigt had chased down Ullrich, his countryman. The next day was a mountain time trial up the legendary Alpe d'Huez, which was lined with thousands of fans. "Honestly, I have never been so brutally criticised as there," he remembered. "I was called a rat, a pig, traitor, Judas, Armstrong-helper and traitor to my country.
"That was really bitter and hurt me terribly. I was almost ready to turn around, ride down the hill to the bus and to disappear to my home. I couldn't bear it any more, I had never before in my life felt so much hate, repugnance and aversion. I had thought I was a popular cyclist – within hours the mood had changed."
Speaking of Ullrich, he did issue one small criticism. He noted that CSC's Bjarne Riis "is always looking for cyclists who are willing to go to their limits – and not just in races and training, but also in their personal development," and added that he thought that this was why Riis had sought him out. "He simply saw that I had constantly delivered my performances over the years ... that I am one who works hard over the entire year and doesn't just concentrate on one goal. And therefore, if Jan Ullrich would really have transferred to CSC, he would surely have had his problems with Bjarne."
Voigt traces the story of his cycling career: winning his first race as a nine-year-old and improving steadily, so that at age 14 he went to the sports school in Berlin. It was an eye-opening experience for the country boy, away from home for the first time. "The first half year was hard," he admitted. "But I was determined not to give up."
He was still at the school on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, and he crossed into West Berlin for the first time that evening. It was another first for the East German, who grew up in two rooms with his parents and two siblings. "The apartment had no bathroom, the toilet was on the floor below, and for a shower we had to go to the public bath."
After finishing at the sports school, Voigt served his time in the German Bundeswehr (military) in a special sports company. Following that, he had a successful amateur career, with many wins. The one that meant the most to him was the overall win in the 1994 Peace Race, the Eastern Bloc equivalent of the Tour de France.
After that highly-successful year, he was ready to turn pro – but the offers didn't come in. Finally, in late 1996, he served as a stagiaire for Team Giant, and for the 1997 season received a contract with Team Giant/ZVVZ. Political problems caused ZVVZ to stop sponsorship after that season, and Voigt signed for GAN, which later became Crédit Agricole. He won his first race for the team, the GP d'Ouverture Marseillaise.
Meanwhile, his personal life had undergone major changes. At the Niedersachsen Rundfahrt in April 1994, he met an attractive blond soigneur, Stephanie. Their first child, a boy, was born in November 1995, and he was ultimately followed by four more children. They lived in Berlin until he signed with GAN, at which time he moved to France, while Stephanie and their son moved back in with her parents. It was a difficult time, but it brought them closer together in the end, he said. They married in 2003.
He rode the scandal-ridden 1998 Tour de France, in which he became the first German to be awarded the mountain jersey (he wore it for stage nine - ed.). "I couldn't believe it at first – the Tour was then 95 years old and no other German until then had been able to ride his way into the mountain jersey? Unbelievable. But true."
In 2004 he left Crédit Agricole and joined CSC, saying "I wanted to try something new, so I started looking for another team. After the many years at Crédit Agricole, things had become too routine. I needed a new challenge and was therefore totally unmotivated."
"I couldn't imagine, and I still can't, that I could become even better as a cyclist – but Bjarne thought differently. He is sure that he can motivate me even more and give me even more self-confidence for the future – and that I will become even more successful because of that," he says in praise of his team boss.
One of the new things that Voigt wanted to try was riding the Giro d'Italia as preparation for the Tour, a plan he carried out in 2006 against Riis' wishes. He enjoyed the race, which he called "more relaxed". With new captain Ivan Basso comfortably in the overall lead, Voigt was given his chance in the Giro's Queen stage, the 19th stage from Pordenone - Passo Di San Pellegrino.
Before the stage, Riis told him, "Jens, if a group goes, then you go with them and stay in the front so that in the finale Ivan will have you there to support him when he comes up from behind." A group did indeed get away, and Voigt was of course in it. He held himself out of all intermediate sprints and mountain rankings, and had made it clear to his breakaway companions that he was just along for the ride and would not take over any of the lead work.
Eventually, it became clear that the peloton would not reach the escape group, and that they would be able to ride for the stage win. Voigt repeatedly asked Riis if he could help lead, but the manager insisted that he lay low and wait for Basso. With two kilometres to go to the finish line, Voigt and Juan Manuel Garate of Quick.Step-Innergetic were the only two still together in the lead. Then Riis told Voigt to ride for the stage win. "No, Bjarne, that won't work now. I just can't do that," he answered. His boss was angry at the unexpected answer and ordered him again to go for it. "I can't do that, it is not honourable." Garate won the stage by four seconds as Voigt did not contest for the win.
Riis remained angry at first, but came to accept Voigt's decision. At the next day's team meeting, he said, "At first I did not agree with Jens' decision, but I respect it now. That it exactly what I want to see: riders who aren't afraid to express their opinions and stand up to them" – a description that well fits Jens Voigt.
Voigt says that he is normally easy to get along with, but he has two rules for his team-mates during the season: "Don't play with my Gameboy and don't mess with my food!" The food problem concerns his breakfast muesli, and the problem with it lies in the fact that Voigt does not get up as early as some of his team-mates. He would become frustrated when he appeared in the breakfast room at the appointed time, only to find that the early-birds had finished off the muesli. At Team CSC, soigneur Sabine Lüber came up with the idea of a plastic container holding muesli labeled "Jens' muesli, do not touch". Team manager Bjarne Riis one day noticed it, and asked what was up. After Voigt explained the situation to him, "He looked at me rather doubtfully and said, 'You must either be very popular or a superstar.'"
Another outstanding characteristic is his messiness. "My suitcase is in principle the enclosure of a big mess." For him, packing his suitcase in the morning is the first race of the day. "When I manage to close the suitcase and bring it to the pickup point undamaged and on time, then that is the first win of the day for me. I can't do it otherwise, I have to do it this way. When I pack my suitcase my way, I get ride of so much stress that I get the feeling that the real race can't really be so difficult......"
Paradoxically, his usual roommate Bobby Julich is "very orderly, his suitcase is always tidy," Voigt noted. "Bobby always laughs when I am desperately trying to close my suitcase."
But his competitors aren't laughing when Voigt puts it in another gear. His autobiography may be done and over with, but his winning days are not. Late March he won the Critérium International and the CSC rider is planning to defend the title in the Deutschland Tour, which just announced this year's route.