Jens Voigt is the conscience of cycling
BOURG-SAINT-MAURICE, France -- Let's pause and, for just a moment, put peloton politics and doping speculation and Contador versus Armstrong aside to celebrate the career of the most conscientious man in the business, Jens Voigt.
It was horrifying to see Voigt crash out of this Tour de France on Tuesday, not only because he is smart and honest and loyal and funny and tireless, but also because it happened in a place where he is usually in his element, flying down a mountainside on a mission.
Voigt lost control of his bike at high speed on the long descent of the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard in Stage 16, falling heavily on his right side and sliding a seemingly endless and agonizing distance before his body finally came to rest. Saxo Bank team spokesman Brian Nygaard said Voigt was airlifted to a hospital in Grenoble, where he was "scanned head to toe. ... It's not as bad as we feared.''
Nygaard said Voigt broke the orbital bone under one eye, has gashes on his right side that required stitches and suffered a concussion. He will be kept overnight for observation. According to Nygaard, Voigt was in good spirits considering the trauma, and sent a message to his teammates telling them he would be fine and that they should focus on racing.
Even before the accident, this was a race during which I tried to pay special attention to Voigt's exploits, because I wasn't sure how much longer I'd have the pleasure of watching him. On the first rest day of the Tour, the ebullient German startled me by confiding that this might be his final go at cycling's biggest event -- one in which he has twice won stages and worn the leader's yellow jersey thanks to his taste for the intrepid.
"I think I've been quite successful in pushing my age back and denying how old I am, but maybe it finally starts to catch up with me," Voigt said in that unmistakable rapid-fire voice that cracks sometimes, as if there were still some teenage boy in the 37-year-old man.
"We have a lot of young talent here, and of course they are pushing, and that's the way it should be. I try not to be a bitter old man. I was impatient to go to the front. I didn't want to wait for the older generation to say, 'OK, my son, come now.' I still have a big passion for it or I wouldn't do it, but maybe it's my last one." He paused. "It's hard."
Bitter is the last word anyone would use to describe Voigt, who shows up every morning happy to punch in. His assignment here, as always, was to help his team leader and simultaneously look for his own windows of opportunity. Voigt specializes in the art of the breakaway, which requires an incongruous combination of flamboyance and steady brute effort, not to mention a ridiculous pain threshold; he's a classic grinder capable of brilliant moments as well, a coal miner who occasionally reaches into his sack and pulls out a diamond.
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Voigt's selfless service involves not only his legs but also his visual vigilance. His teammates are accustomed to hearing his voice crackle over the radio -- "Jens here," as if he needed introduction -- with a report on road conditions from the front. "I think it's because he's an old soldier," said Saxo Bank training consultant B.S. Christiansen, referring to Voigt's four-year stint in the military, where the rider spent much of his time with a special sports unit.
One of the last products of the old East German sports system still competing, Voigt is the antithesis of the stereotypical robotic athlete who came off that assembly line. Born in a small town north of Hamburg, Voigt said he had a warm, communal childhood where doors were left unlocked and "everyone took care of each other." His father worked for a manufacturer of agricultural equipment.
Voigt was bored in school, and he speculates that today, he would be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Instead, his parents encouraged him to burn off energy in sports, and he tested off the charts for endurance potential. At age 14, he went to a national sports school in Berlin and spent the rest of his high school years building on his raw talent in cycling and track and field. He still holds a grudge against a high jump coach who dared to say he hadn't given his full effort.
The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, when Voigt was 18, and with typical candor, he said he had the best of both German worlds. "For me, it came almost at the perfect moment," he said. "I had all the benefits of the school system and the training system we had [in the East], and then I could make a profit out of it." He said he was never approached with any sinister offers or demands to dope, and attributes his stamina to the discipline and miles he logged as a teenager.
Voigt turned professional to race for the French GAN team that eventually became the now-defunct Credit Agricole. There, he formed a fast friendship with retired American star Bobby Julich, who once fondly told Voigt he was "the perfect survivor -- if we dropped you on an island, a year later you'd be king of the tribe." In 2004, Voigt moved on to the Danish CSC team, where he fit in perfectly with Bjarne Riis' fraternal but regimented style, and is still with that team, now sponsored by Saxo Bank.
Along the way, Voigt has captured his share of races. He was a five-time champion of the Criterium International, which features two road stages and a time trial packed into one cold weekend in northern France -- the ideal torture-a-thon for a man of his skills. He has twice won the Tour of Germany.
He also somehow managed to escape the taint and cynicism that afflicted German cycling in the wake of numerous doping scandals, including one that forced his compatriot and perennial Tour contender Jan Ullrich into retirement. But Voigt couldn't dodge all the consequences of the pandemic and was devastated when he learned CSC leader Ivan Basso had stonewalled the team about his involvement in the Operacion Puerto blood-doping case in 2006.
Not surprisingly, Voigt has long served as a riders' representative to various organizing bodies in the industry. He might be one of the only men in the peloton with the moral authority to have publicly rebuked troubled young Belgian star Tom Boonen, twice nabbed for cocaine use in out-of-competition tests. "Come on, man, you're much too good to do this," Voigt told Boonen during the first week of the Tour. "You're spoiling your life."
Julich said his longtime roommate "showed up ready to bleed on his bike from January through October," but when Voigt had exhausted his daily ration of energy, he'd fall asleep as if someone had flipped a switch in his neck. "His main mantra was always, 'Pain is temporary, success lasts forever,'" Julich said.
Voigt is one day older than Lance Armstrong, which led to some friendly joshing when Armstrong returned to professional racing at the Tour Down Under in Australia in January.
"I think it's easier to keep it going than it is to stop and come back," Voigt said, then speculated that sheer contrariness was part of what fueled the Texan: "If you told him he couldn't go to the moon, he would go to NASA and become an astronaut."
It's hard to imagine cycling's solar system without Voigt, but he seems to be looking further than the next hill these days. In years past, he often joked that he had to keep riding to feed his four children, but his family life took on a different cast when his wife, Stephanie, had life-threatening complications last year while delivering their fifth child, daughter Maya.
"Honestly, for about a day and a half, I thought I might lose them both," Voigt said, and in the same breath acknowledged that the experience made him think about his risky profession. "You love them so much that you always want to come home to them not carrying your head under your arm."
Voigt's athletic audaciousness and effervescent personality made him a cult figure a long time ago, but only recently has his legend spawned a clothing line bearing the slogan "What Would Jens Do?" T-shirts, coffee mugs and other paraphernalia are emblazoned with a checklist:
Break the back of the peloton.
Dig deep in his suitcase of courage.
Put _____ in a spot of trouble.
All of the above.
He'll need all of that reserve now. Get well soon, old soldier.Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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