Jens Voigt is set to retire as we speak, having one final crack at a long break in some race in the Cycling backwater of the USA. Is it fair or fitting that he should go out like this, slipping out the back door with little fanfare, while others have been doing a farewell tour of all the big races, replete with fancy commemorative shoes and a song and dance? It’s probably apt that Jens is just doing what he’s always done: getting on with the job at hand and not saying too much. It’s almost like he’s been given the Golden Handshake, received his gold watch (well, another Trek), and gently herded out of the room, along with the elephant.
There’s no doubt that Jens is a hero to almost the entire cycling world; fans and contemporaries alike instantly warm to the big guy. He’s probably a great bloke to get on the beers with, keeping everyone entertained with his goofy German sense of humour (an oxymoron, I know) and regaling his enthralled audience with stories of that time he towed the peloton up the Galibier, dropping pure climbers like flies one by one. And because he’s a big, goofy, lovable German, no-one would even consider to question his morals or ethics when it comes to his role in the sport, and his considerable time in it. He’s Jens, he’s a bloody legend.
There’s always double standards applied when it comes to our Cycling heroes. Pantani: revered, matyred. Gunderson: condemned. Contador: forgiven, re-accepted. Valverde: despised. O’Grady, Rogers: well, they’re Australian, so even though they admitted/tested positive, no Aussie would ever cheat, right? They’re just lovable larrikins who got caught in the crossfire, and were unlucky or only “did it once”. Sir, your pig is fuelled and ready for take-off.
I’ve loved watching Jens going on crazy long breaks, laughed at the many soundbites he’s provided us, and he was even convinced to mouth our catchcry, although he probably had no clue as to what he was being cajoled into. He always has time for his fans, and that’s a sign of a true champion of the people. Imagine if Gunderson was a bit more humourous, if he’d cracked a few jokes instead of cracking skulls, if he’d told some part of his body to ‘shut up’ instead of telling other riders to do the same. Maybe he’d still be squeaky clean in the eyes of the fans, just like Jens.
While I respect a man who has ridden at the front of the peloton for 20 years and well into his 40s, and take inspiration from that, I can’t just sit here and digest every stock-standard quote that is rolled out. Jens came from one of the world’s most notorious doping programs in the East German system, but somehow wasn’t earmarked for the treatment. He rode professionally from 1997, the height of the EPO era, through Festina, through the Gunderson years, through the Landis/Rasmussen/Contador years. Yet he saw nothing. He rode on teams with more than a sprinkling of convicted and/or known dopers, yet he heard nothing. He rode under Directors Sportif who oversaw some of the biggest doping programs ever witnessed, yet he witnessed nothing himself. He continued to race at the same high level, and above, as the world’s best racers, well past the age when they threw in the towel, yet he wants us to believe he’s done it all on mineral water and sauerkraut.
While I love the guy, I’m not stupid, and neither are the cycling public. We don’t need to be treated like fools by every rider that ever rode in the Pro ranks, but we are, still. Even Gunderson has admitted he’d still be lying to us all, his family, children and cancer community if he hadn’t been outed. That’s the mentality of the Omérta in action. Jens is as old school as they come, and unfortunately he’s taking that mindset with him into retirement.
I wish Jens all the best, but I also wish he’d shown the same hardman qualities off the bike as he did on it, and spoken out about what he did actually see, hear and do. That would make him even more a legend.