Trek Factory Racing's Jens Voigt confirmed in the opening press conference of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge in Aspen, Colorado yesterday that he will hang up his racing wheels after the final stage in Denver on Sunday. The affable 42-year-old German said he was still feeling good, but wanted to close out his career on his own terms.
"Everything has to come to an end," Voigt said wistfully. "I am a big fan of the idea that you are the master of your destiny. I like to decide when I want to go. I could have squeezed out one more year and then have the teams go, 'well, Jens, we really like you but ... we don't need you anymore'. I don't need that. I want to stop in good condition and put on a show one more time, and then finish feeling good and strong, knowing that I squeezed every little bit of energy out of me."
Voigt, a product of the East German athletic system, began racing when he was 10 years old, but did not turn professional until he was 25, in 1997, after spending four years in the sports unit of the German military. During his time as an amateur, he won the Peace Race in 1994, and had his first taste of life in the USA when he visited the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. It seemed only fitting that he end his career in Colorado, and he hopes to go out with the same kind of panache that he has built his career upon.
"I think I have a pretty good fan base in the US, and it just felt right to end my career here. Hopefully I have the freedom to go on one of my 'stupid' breakaways."
One of Voigt's most memorable breakaways came in the second edition of the USA Pro Challenge, in 2012, when he embarked on a breakaway on the stage from Aspen to Beaver Creek. He left his escape companions behind with 100km still left in the stage, and endured the rain, wind, hail and his long-running argument with his legs to win the stage, going so hard that his director finally told him to relax when, with 1km to go, he still had five minutes on the field.
"It just felt right. Winning a stage was great. I worked a long, long time for it. It was a pretty good moment."
He's had a number of epic stage wins in the 17 years he has had as a professional: he won two stages of the Tour de France as well as the team time trial in 2001, and one stage in the Giro d'Italia, the overall Criterium International five times, the Tour of Poland on a similarly epic breakaway, and the Bayern-Rundfahrt and Deutschland Tour twice, but he had to call it quits at some point, and made the decision last year to end his career after a full 2014 season.
"I had a conference call with my body, my legs, my head and my motivation. We decided we could keep it up for one more year, but after this, leave us alone. I want to stick to my promise.
"I think the riders might chip in some money to pay for me to go away finally," Voigt joked, but then turned serious again. "We talked about the next season planning at the end of last year. I wanted to do a full season, some had the idea I might end after Tour of California, but I wanted to do a full, proper final season."
This week will be all about soaking in the last of a career which was spent largely in the service of his team leaders, hauling countless bottles up from the team cars, pulling his leader to the front, hauling back breakaways and punishing the peloton with his relentless pace-making.
"I still can't believe it myself that this is the last time I'm going to sign a start sheet for the last race of my life," Voigt said. "I've been a cyclist for 33 years, I started just before my 10th birthday. It's been the most constant factor of my life. I've been married for 11 years, I went to school for 12 years, and my oldest son is soon 19, but I've been cycling 33 years. It's going to be a big chunk that's closing. There are going to be a lot of challenges coming my way, to reorganise my life after this.
"It has been a long career, I hope I'm allowed to say it was a good career. I got some good wins in there, I had some great moments. I met some of the greatest people in the world - some of my best and oldest long-time friends. I am thankful for the sport of cycling and what it gave to me."
Voigt will be missed by his former teammates, competitors and fans alike, and Trek Factory Racing teammate Fränk Schleck made a tribute to Voigt in the press conference.
"I've been with Jens nine years in the team, it's been a great experience. He never changes. He stays the same guy with his feet on the ground. He comes to every single race, big or small, with his big willing-to-win attitude and he always motivates the whole team. He's great for the team. The whole team is going to miss him a lot."