The Old Man and the Road

A story i did with Jens Voigt a few months back

Jens Voigt is the unquestionable master, and people’s hero, of the great escape. Here he tells us how he balances bravado and brute force to succeed.

Throughout the history of our great two-wheeled sport there have been those super hero like characters. Riders who brighten up many a grim and gloomy Flandrian race day or ignite a stale doorstep of a windswept stage in the Midi; the brave ones, those who never give up, the eternal aggressors, those who inspire hearts full of hope and optimism in all of us – guys like Jens Voigt.

The tall and lanky East German racer has been spicing up pro bike races around the world for a couple of decades now, and his heart is almost as big as his character, and is pinned firmly on the sleeve of his racing jersey.

In 1994 he won the illustrious Peak Race, the amateur equivalent of the Tour de France, he was also the UCI’s top ranked amateur rider that year. Ironically he got his break from the amateur ranks thanks to a helping hand from former East German and Australian team coach Heiko Salzwedel, and in 1997 he joined the Australian AIS Giant team, where he soon made his mark, as he remembers with a shaking head and a grin; “It was a great experience, those Australians, wow – I saw things that I never should have seen, I have some great memories of that time.”

Offers came in for bigger bucks, and he had a wife and young family to support. It came to a toss-up between a crack at the big time, or a bigger pay packet; “I had an offer for much more money on a smaller team, or the chance to show myself at a bigger team for a really small salary. I talked it over with my wife and we took the risk. We had to give up our apartment, she moved back in with her parents, and I went away – I had to make it work.”

At the tender age of 41 years old you’d think he’d have become somewhat jaded with a lifetime of racing alone in the wind, defying protocol and gambling on near impossible odds. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and this giant of a racer has never once flinched at his own personal responsibility – that of giving his all, win or lose, no matter how much it hurts his body.

Jens is a true and ideal role model, a rider that every young (and old) cyclist should aspire to mirror. We caught up with him recently to talk about his attacking style and passion for breaking away.

Shut up legs

“When I was younger I used to get into as little bit of trouble at school – just a little bit. The teacher went to my parents and told them that I needed to do some sport to calm me down, so I started cycling. After 2 weeks of training I rode my first race, and won, that was it, I never looked back.”

“My father always used to tell me that my mind should control my body, and not the other way around, a principle I hold true. “Shut up legs” comes from this story – as one day he asked me what I was doing, and I told him that my mind was saying  “shut up legs.” I told this story in an interview, and that one line has stuck ever since.”

Having a plan

“Deciding when to attack is different with all races. In the Tour de France, for example, if Fabian (Cancellara) gets the yellow jersey early in the race then I have to work for that for the first few days. If not it’s more open to potential attacks.”

“I always look at the race route in advance; maybe Google the route, and then check the race manual in the days before the race, to identify opportunities which would suit me.”

“Some days will be sprinters days, others are mountain days; so there’s nothing for me. In-between I look for medium-hard stages that look like they could be good for a breakaway, and then I look closer at the profiles and look for places that could work for braking away. Then I go to my team director with the plan and talk about it.”

“If they say Ok, then I approach that day with it in mind. But as an old German general once said; “The first thing that becomes the victim of battle is the battle plan.” So, you can have the most sophisticated and perfect plan, but if somebody attacks before, after, or differently you have to be able to adapt.”

“You need to have a plan, and to stick to it, but be able to adapt in a flexible way. It’s no good saying “I had a plan to attack in the last 10KM, but now the brake has gone;” then you are stupid – you should have gone with them.”

Gut feelings

“A lot of my attacking is based on my belly feeling. I can just see the moment; maybe the sun is shining, there’s a forest a house, I just know the time is right. I believe I have some sort of instinct for it, and quite often it works.”

“Sometimes I have those rare moments, when I swear that I can almost see the future, and I know I have to go now, and by the top of the next climb I have 2 minutes, and they never see me again.”

“This has happened even with 130-140 km to go. I knew this was how it was going to be, and never had a second of doubt. The time goes 20, 30, 40 seconds; the team director comes up and says: “Oooh Jens, it’s a long day ahead, are you up for that?” I just say yeah of course I am.”

“I’ve had this a few times with Kim Andersen, he has known me for many years, and now he trusts me when I say I feel I should just go, there is a reason behind it.”

The killer blow

“Even after 15 years (as a pro) there are still people who just think I’m like a big floppy Teddy, but I do have a plan, I do read the race, I do understand what happens. It doesn’t always look like that, which is to my advantage.”

“For example; if I’m in a break I count the riders I’m with and observe them, and try and create an ideal scenario, where I place myself ahead of the next strongest guy, or the one I see as the biggest threat. Then when I swing off it creates a potential trap. That guy is now working on the front, and by the time he swings off I’m already on the back and leave a 10-20 meter gap, and when he pulls off I start sprinting, and by the time he sees me attacking I’m already 10kph faster than the others, and he’s dropping back, so I’m 20kph faster than him and accelerating. They start yelling ate each other, but by the time you past the first guy there is no chance of getting on your wheel.”

“Once you’re out there you gain 20 seconds like that, and they start hesitating, and you’re gone.”

Let it rain

“The weather is a really big factor, because nobody likes to race in the rain. I don’t much like to race in the rain either, but my body seems to work pretty well in the cold and the rain.”

“It beats down the motivation of other guys a lot more than me. So, whatever makes the race sticky and hard is good for me; bad weather, bad roads, climbs, whatever makes it “ughh” is good for me.”

Fully committed

“I’d love to be a sprinter; just waiting in the pack and coming out with 100 meters to go and winning, but I can’t. The way I win is by hard work. I don’t think I have too many lucky wins. I have to work hard for every single one of them.  But, I like winning, so I have to put up the sacrifice and work hard to try and win.”

“Contrary to some other people, I almost never look back when I attack. If I go I mean it, it’s not a test balloon. Maybe after 1km I will look back, or if I see a wheel pulling next to me, and then I decide how to play things.”

“Even if I don’t feel 100% I will still go with my planned attack, absolutely. There’s a famous story about Emil Zatopek (legendary Czech long distance runner), who (I think) was the only runner to win the Olympic 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and marathon – in the same week. He always said about cyclists, that he could not understand when they say; “I didn’t have the legs today.”

“He never understood this, and said; “If I didn’t have the legs, I wanted to have the legs, and forced my legs to make it happen.”  That’s what I do, force my legs (hence the “shut up legs” thing).”

“Sometimes you’ve just got to kick yourself to make it happen. But, sometimes I do have self belief, even beyond reason, so even if I’m at 98% I say to myself that I can still win, because who can tell me that the other riders are all on their best day? If I’m suffering then the others must be suffering at least as much as me.”

“Once I open that box I never stop, I have to empty it fully. I never give up. When the first 5-10 riders in the peloton pass me; then Ok, I’m beaten.”

“This is because I’ve seen a few times that if you don’t give up the weirdest things can happen. Many times I’ve been I’ve been the last guy hanging in on the climb, maybe 10 times over it, ready to just give up, but I’ve gone on to win, just because I was the last one to survive. Others can puncture, anything can happen; you never know what will happen. So, when I go I’m fully committed to it.”

The three degrees

“A breakaway has three stages; the making of it, when everybody is committed and you go full gas until you get that magic 1 minute, which is when people in the peloton realize that they cannot jump across alone, and this requires an organized team to chase. By the time this happens you have 2 minutes, and they realize that you have gone for the day.”

“The second part is the “transport,” which is from there to maybe 20 km to go. This is where riders become partners, not friends, partners. You work together until 20, 10, or maybe less kilometers to go.”

“The third part is after this, when this group falls apart and you become individuals, one against another. Here you start to assess things; see who is there, who is tiered. If it’s a hill top finish you try and get rid of the climber, or if it’s a flat finish you try and get rid of the sprinter. You have to find the best scenario for yourself, playing to your own powers and strengths.” 

The final straw

“Maybe it’s one of my weaknesses – I’m not enough of a player. But when it comes to the closing stages of a race and things are close and you may get caught, and other riders are not working, I keep riding.”

“I’m not much of a poker player, so I’d rather keep riding and finish on the podium than risk being 150th because we got caught. I’m not saying I’m right – some people play it differently and would rather gamble, win or get nothing.”

The after life

“I still enjoy it (racing), and still have that fire, so I’m not stopping just yet, maybe next year. But, when I do stop I am going to lock that bike away for a while, a few months, just do normal things, somebody will have to hold me to that. Then, maybe I’ll take it out and do some nice rides, to enjoy it and for fitness – but I’m not going to become one of these guys who can’t stop.”

“My son has also just started cycling, he also won his first race – he is good, I’m not just saying because he’s my son – so maybe he will take it up seriously too, but I’m not pushing him.”

Systematic, the future?

“When I was young East Germany was still a communist country, and so I came through the sports school system, and it was a great way of identifying and nurturing talent – it worked.”

“That disappeared; but systems like the AIS and British Cycling are very similar, but when it was the Eastern Block period money was no object, sport was so important to us. I think it’s a good thing, and teams are also realizing that finding young talented riders and helping them is the way to go, and to look after their investment.”