A Magical Race

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There I was, a 38-year-old man flying down a mountain in the Tour de France on a little bitty kid’s bike. I was cut up and covered in road rash, and about the only part of me that wasn’t in pain was my right ankle. My racing bike was back near the top of the hill, smashed into pieces. Somebody had even stolen my sunglasses. Can you believe that? But I wasn’t thinking about anything else except for reaching the finish line. There was no way I was quitting this race. Not again.

How did I get here? And why was it so important to me stay in the race?

It was early in stage 16 of the 2010 Tour de France, five days out from the finish in Paris. We were in the Pyrenees and I had just begun my descent of the Col de Peyresourde when the front tire of my bike blew out. I was only 15 to 20 seconds off the pace at the time, riding with my Team CSC teammate Chris Anker Sørensen. We were going at least 40 mph. I only had time to think, Oh, this is going to be painful. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground.

Not only is the Col de Peyresourde one of the oldest climbs in the Tour de France — the Tour first used it in 1910 — but it is also one of the most beautiful, the kind that makes people nostalgic for the greatest bicycle race in the world. Instead of rocky cliffs, the winding road rises through green fields, past villages and vineyards. From the summit on a clear day you can see for miles in every direction.

But from my vantage point on the ground, all I could see was everybody zooming past. We had two team cars and both were way in front. One was with Andy Schleck, our team leader, who was wearing the yellow jersey as the race leader. The other car had gone ahead of the field to be ready to hand out water bottles at the foot of the next climb. While the race’s medical staff tended to my injuries — my left elbow was gushing blood and my ribs were killing me — the peloton and the trailing riders flew by. My bike was totaled. I wasn’t going anywhere.

The only vehicles left were an ambulance and the Broom Wagon, the minibus that riders jump in when they decide to abandon the race along the road. I was taking five stitches in my elbow when the Broom Wagon pulled up next to me and the driver asked if I wanted to get in. I couldn’t believe it. It was déjà vu. I thought, No, not again!

Exactly one year before I had been forced to drop out of the Tour for the only time in my career. I crashed in stage 16 in the Alps while descending the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard at nearly 50 mph. It was the final descent of the day, and I was slowing down to go back to the team car to get fresh water bottles for the boys — and that’s my last memory! Apparently I lost the grip on my handlebars when I hit a bump in the road. I landed on my face and then slid for several meters. The next thing I knew, I was lying on my back looking up at the ceiling of an ambulance. I had a fractured cheekbone and a concussion, and I looked like hell. I was in such bad shape that they put me on a helicopter and took me to a hospital in Grenoble, which is about 100 miles to the southwest. My Tour de France was over.

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I never looked at myself as a quitter, as somebody who runs away from a challenge, or somebody who gives up easily. And since I had been forced to abandon the Tour in 2009, I wanted no part of the Broom Wagon this time. I yelled at the driver, “Oh no! I don’t need you! Get away!” But I had no way of getting down the mountain. I was so desperate to keep going that I actually thought about knocking a policeman off his bike and taking it for a ride. I thought about stealing a bike! I mean, there was no way I was going to give up two years in a row.

And that’s when I noticed a third car, with three yellow children’s bikes on the roof. The car had been trailing the field because the bikes were part of a Tour promotion where local kids used them to ride a portion of the route before a stage actually began. Since we were about 30–40 miles into the stage, the kids were long gone and the bicycles had been loaded onto a car that was bringing up the end of that day’s caravan. I just grabbed one and started pedaling. It was way too small for me, but it was the only way. I rode it for about 10–12 miles before my team could get me one of my own bicycles.

I finished the stage, and even though everybody kept telling me how terrible I looked, I finished the Tour too. Why? Was 126th place really so important?

I get that people are jaded and that they think the sport has lost credibility. But I love the Tour all the same. And you should too.

Yes!

I call it Tour de France Fever, and I get it every summer around this time. The Tour, which starts on Saturday on the island of Mont-Saint-Michel, is just a magical race. You finish in Paris, which is pretty great in itself, and you also feel like you’re part of something special, part of a very, very elite club of survivors. It’s 22 teams, with nine riders each. That’s 198 riders who start the race. About 50 of them, roughly a quarter, will never make it to Paris because of crashes, sickness — whatever. And you never want to be part of the quarter that doesn’t make it. So everybody who reaches Paris has gone through a lot of hardship. And they have shared the experience with not only their teammates, but also with all the other riders. It’s a really good feeling of camaraderie. And it’s really precious — and priceless — to be part of that.

But with all the scandals in pro cycling in the last two decades, and especially with the truth about Lance Armstrong finally coming out, there are a lot of people who can no longer take the sport at face value. I talk to people from all over and sometimes they say, “Ah, I’m not interested anymore in the Tour. Every year we have these doping stories, so it’s hard to watch.” That’s a shame. It’s dispiriting. I always ask them, “What about Tom Brady and Deflategate. Is that the fault of the Super Bowl? Is the Super Bowl guilty? Is the Super Bowl no longer good because all of a sudden Tom Brady may have decided to deflate a ball? No, of course not.”

It’s not the fault of the Tour de France that some people gave in to temptation and cheated. It’s just not. And I should know. I rode in 17 Tours, tied for the most of all time. And I love it. I get that people are jaded and that they think the sport has lost credibility. But I love the Tour all the same. And you should too.

***

As a rider, I never knew the Tour de France without a cloud of doping allegations hanging over it. The very first time I rode in race was in 1998, when a scandal erupted over the use of EPO and other performance enhancing drugs. At first, the affair seemed to only be confined to the powerhouse Festina team, but we soon learned that it was much bigger than that. Not a day seemed to go by without another rider getting caught, or another suitcase full of drugs being found by police. It just didn’t stop! French police were raiding team hotels and buses. A few teams even stopped racing. They quit and went home!

Things got so bad that the riders (most of whom didn’t yet know the extent of the scandal) held a sit-down strike during the 17th stage of the race. We just sat down in the middle of the road for a couple of hours.

I grew up in East Germany, and ever since the Berlin Wall had come down I’d had only one dream — to be a professional cyclist and ride in the Tour de France. And now that dream was disintegrating in front of my eyes. When the race started, I was like a little child. I had a brand-new bike, a brand-new set of clothes. And then it all exploded. That was a pretty big wake-up call.

Winning the Tour de France wasn’t what I was in the race for. I was a domestique, a rider who sacrifices himself for his teammates.

It was certainly nothing I’d ever imagined when I was growing up in the small village of Dassow, on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. Thanks in part to communism, our life was simple. There was one shoe shop, one clothing shop, one toy store, one bakery. There were two kinds of cars: big and small! And you had to wait for them. We didn’t have a car until I was 15. Motorbikes were all MZ. TVs were all Strassfurth. Cameras were all Praktika.

And bicycles were all Diamant. That’s what I got when I was nine years old on the day that changed my life. In East Germany, part of the political idea was that with successful sport we could show the superiority of the Socialist system. Athletes were actually supposed to send the message to the world that our system was far better than the Capitalist system. A lot of money was spent on sports, especially on Olympic sports, and everything was paid for by the government. That’s why the local cycling team could come to my school and offer free bikes.

When you’re not even 10 years old and somebody offers you a brand-new shiny, silver-metallic bike … it was incredible. We didn’t have a car, so a bike meant freedom. You could go and see your friends. That was a huge step in my life.

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And I trained for about three weeks and I entered my first race and I won it! I continued to do well, and in 1984 I left home for the national sports school in Berlin. And that was really the beginning of my cycling career. I won lots of races — more than 60 International Cycling Union Events (UCI) — but I never won the Tour de France.

But let’s be clear about something. Winning the Tour de France wasn’t what I was in the race for. I was a domestique, a rider who sacrifices himself for his teammates. (Another way to say it is that I was a rouleur, a consistent all-around rider.) And I was pretty good at it. In my 18-year career as a professional cyclist (1997–2014), I won three stages of the Tour and twice wore le maillot jaune (the yellow jersey) as the race leader, but my real value to my teams was in doing things like chasing down breakaways or collecting water bottles for everybody. I had all different jobs, but what the teams liked about me most was that I was reliable. Whenever things got sticky my teammates could count on me to be there. I was not a quitter. For me the glass is always half full. Life is great — embrace it.

But that was sometimes hard to do during my career, when the sport of cycling seemed determined to push people away. I remember that after my first Tour de France, when the Festina affair shook up everything in the sport, my wife, Stephanie, and and I went back home to Dassow to see my family. We have six kids now, but back then there was only our oldest, Marc, who was a few years old. He was sleeping in another room and we were all in the kitchen because that’s where most of life took place in my house. Most important talks we had in my family, they all took place in the kitchen, with my mother cooking and everybody hanging out. And my parents just grilled me about the Tour. What’s going on? What happened over there?

And my dad said, “Listen, son, we’re not there all the time with you. But if you do that shit, we would drop dead! We couldn’t live here anymore. They named a street after you. We live on number 1 Jens Voigt Ring. If you would do that and get caught, we couldn’t go out on the street in daylight anymore. We’d have to move to another country!”

Riders have been using drugs in the Tour de France since the race was first held in 1903. Back then it was alcohol and ether, which help dull the pain that comes with riding all out for three weeks, as well as strychnine, which in small doses keeps tired muscles from going limp. Later it was amphetamines, then things like EPO and HGH and blood doping. As a rider, I was scarred by the Festina affair. Doping isn’t right. It’s dangerous, and it destroys everything.

My motto was, Shut up, legs! People could relate to that. Definitely I have a certain talent. But I was also hardworking.

I got serious about working to control doping in the sport in 2008, when I was a member of the Professional Cyclists Association. We helped put in place the biological passport that is still used today. The passport measures a rider’s biological variables over time to detect unnatural fluctuations in blood and hormone levels — even if a rider never tests positive for performance enhancing drugs.

The passport works. It’s a big reason why the Tour de France has been mostly clean for the last five years. I’m proud of that.

***

One day during the 2011 Tour of Colorado — a little more than a year after I used a kid’s bike to stay in the Tour de France — I was in a big breakaway when out of nowhere an official race car pulled up alongside of us. And suddenly Barry Bonds stuck his head out the window and yelled at me, “Go, Jens!” There were 11 Americans in the group, but Barry Bonds was yelling for me? Why?

I think that my honesty is what appealed to people. I wasn’t giving bullshit to anybody for being better or doing things differently than me. I was honest about my performance. And I believe people saw that and said, Hey, look at this Jens. He’s a hardworking guy. He gets knocked down sometimes, but next morning, the second the bell is ringing, he is back in the ring and giving it another go. I think people liked my reliability, that I was not a quitter, that I hurt myself to achieve. My motto was, Shut up, legs! People could relate to that. Definitely I have a certain talent. But I was also hardworking.

One thing I can really say of my career is I did not have one lucky win. I have 65 official UCI wins — proper, real races. Not one of them came easy or lucky to me. I worked hard for them. So the ones I had, I deserved. And the ones I didn’t have, I never once complained and said I was unlucky. No. I was not good enough. Period.

I cover the Tour now as a commentator for NBC Sports. And it’s different. I talk to the teams and see what they’re up to. And they’re all happy to see me. But yes, I am not one of the riders anymore. So when I go there I cannot sit at the riders’ table. I sit at a table with the official people — the mechanics, the team directors. I must admit, I felt a little sting in my heart when that happened the first time. Oh, absolutely, yes. Absolutely I did. I rode for a long time. It’s normal.

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But I got over it. The way it worked with NBC last year, my place was right at the finish line. And already by the first, second, third day, there were some bad crashes. I could see riders coming across the line all wet and dirty from the rain and cold, with their clothes torn apart. Some of them were still bleeding when they crossed the line. And I said, “Nah, nah. I’m good here.” I did everything I physically could. I achieved everything I could achieve. I’m perfectly happy with the way things are now.

I really do enjoy the flexibility. If I was a team director, or sports director — I’m certified to be one by the UCI — I would be in a car half the year with the team. But the way it is now, I am the ambassador of the Tour Down Under, in Australia. I’m the ambassador of the Tour of California. I had time to write and publish a book. A friend and I have this little online clothing business, Shut Up Legs apparel. Then I work together with FitBit fitness watches. I work with a company called Swift. They do sort of a virtual reality for home trainers so that home training isn’t so boring. I have a lot of different jobs.

And on Sept. 24, I’ll be hosting my own race in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It will be the second annual Jensie Gran Fondo of Marin. I’m proud of that.

It’s no Tour de France, of course. It’s just a one-day race. There’s nothing like the Tour. And nothing will ever change that.

Letter to My Younger Self

Racing is not kind to all of us, Mario. But it will be kind to you — so kind that at times you’ll even feel guilty, wondering why you are deserving of such good fortune while bad things happen to the drivers closest to you.

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