Jens Voigt interview: Some times during my cycling days, I was more dead than alive
Jens Voigt talks to Firstpost about cycling through pain, the charm of the Tour de France and everything else about the life of a professional cyclist.
Jens Voigt lowers his head very close to the dining table and mimics shovelling food into his mouth with a spoon. "By the end of the Tour de France, we're like this," he says, still with his head resting almost on the dining table.
Professional cycling is the business of enduring suffering, and for many years, very few cyclists could consume as much suffering as Voigt. He even called his autobiography 'Shut Up, Legs', a phrase he would bark at his body when the lactic acid started to build up in those long and sinewy pistons he calls legs and his body started protesting.
"Some days, we're more dead than alive," adds Voigt with the nonchalance of a man who has cheated death multiple times and always emerged from the experience with an anecdote or two.
Voigt raced at an astounding 17 Tours from 1998 to 2004, completing 340 stages of the world's most gruelling cycling extravaganza.
"It's not a race, it's probably one of the biggest adventures you can go to," Voigt, who was in Mumbai for the Trek Ride Camp, tells Firstpost.
"At every single Tour de France, every year, each rider will at least once hit the wall. That's what we call it. You feel like you are done. You are really tired, or you have just crashed. You feel that you cannot do this again tomorrow. But somehow, you always find another way to go through with it. There is always daylight after the night.
"I have competed at Tours where every single one of my teammates, including me, have crashed at least once. And I have been on Tours where every morning the team doctor would run around for 45 minutes just bandaging wounds to get us ready to race. But we cyclists, we just cannot get enough of it that's why we go back every year."
Pain has been a constant accomplice for Voigt during his career. Two famous anecdotes from his career stand out. Once, he crashed at the Tour of California, but rather than sit out, he chose to soldier on through the remaining two stages. With a broken hand.
Then at the 2010 Tour de France, he crashed hard during a descent on the Col de Peyresourde. With his team car having gone far ahead and the metaphorical broom wagon approaching, he borrowed a child's bicycle to ride 15 kilometres to his spare bike.
"There are moments when you crash during a race, and you're sitting on the tarmac with your whole body hurting and thinking to yourself, 'do I really want to get on that bike again?' There's the temptation to just raise your hand and call an ambulance and get in the car. But then you think about the team and continue cycling. No cyclist wants to let his team down. I remember one crash (during the 2009 Tour) when they had to actually airlift me to a hospital on a helicopter and a commentator announced on television that I had a fifty percent chance of surviving the night.
"Yes the Tour has shown me a lot of terrible crashes, but it also gave me a lot of remarkable moments. In 2008, my teammate Carlos Sastre ended up ended up winning the individual classification and we won the team classification. We were standing on the extra large podium at the Champs Elysees on a sunny day with the Arc de Triomphe in the background with some 200 journalists taking pictures of us. And I remember telling my teammates that we should just retire because it's never going to be as good as this," says Voigt, whose role was that of a domestique, or a cyclist who helps the team leader try and win the Yellow Jersey. Despite this, he wore the Yellow Jersey himself a few times.
Submerging before a race
The allure of the three-week race, which passes through quaint French villages and through the Alps, is so much that three-time champion Greg LeMond once revealed that he dreamt about competing at the race decades after retiring.
"Yes, the race passes through really picturesque terrain, but it is also a challenging race. During the race you don't see too much of the beautiful landscape. I have been to Paris so many times while competing at the Tour de France, and I did not see anything apart from the road below me or the wheels of the rider in front of me. Only now when I am travelling as a commentator, I am getting the chance to appreciate and look at things. Even though we raced through some of the most beautiful or historic cities, we didn't experience too much of the culture, we didn't get to taste the cheese or the wine in the cities. All we did was race," says Voigt.
"For the Tour de France, the whole team comes together a few days before the race begins to do some recon on the route and fine-tune their bikes. It's like the whole team gets into a submarine and they submerge. Like the whole world doesn't exist for you anymore."
Ride, or lie down
Voigt adds: "This might be disappointing, but the life of a professional cyclist is a lot less glamorous than most people think. You live in shitty and cheap hotels and basically if you are competing at an event like the Tour de France you either ride or are lying down. If you cannot lie down, you're sitting down and if you cannot sit down, you stand. The last thing you want to do is walk. In the Tour de France they say that the race is not won during the race but during the recovery stage. The more time you have to sleep or to rest during the race, the better you recover."
And whatever you do, don't count back the days.
"You are not allowed to count the days back during a big race. You cannot say okay 20 days to go or 19 days to go. That kills you. Maybe when you hit the halfway mark then you can count the days back but otherwise, you would go mad."
Having endured the crashes, the pain, having the hit the wall year after year, Voigt is one of those cyclists who would still happily do it again should he get a chance.
"I miss two things the most about being a professional cyclist: one is the team camaraderie. The second is the feeling of being really fit. Waking up each morning and thinking that you can go out and conquer the world."
Cycling has doping under control
The world of cycling has perpetually had to work with a cloud of doping hanging over its head, ever since the Lance Armstrong scandal broke out. But Voigt believes the sport has the menace under control.
"The way I see it is we do a lot to curb doping. In fact, we do more than other sports. We also need the media to be slightly more understanding because every time there is a positive test, the media goes 'oh it's cycling again'. How about we look at it the other way and say 'hey look, cycling has caught another cheater and have made their sport cleaner'. At the moment we are absolutely on top of it."
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