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Weekly Wibble: The Church of Jens

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

Jens Voigt, breakaway, surrounded by spectators cheering

A couple of years ago, in some prim, provincial start town, the Tour de France bunch gathered on the start line and rolled away. But there was one man missing. As I wandered over to the podium area, I was surprised to see the absentee there, in stripey Radioshack kit, legs up, reading that day’s L’Equipe.

“Er, Jens, they’ve started,” I told him.

“Ah ja, I know,” he said, briefly glancing up before returning to the newspaper with the leisure of someone at the Sunday morning breakfast table. (After an orange juice and hard-boiled egg, he did eventually get up and ride the stage.)

He has made a career out of breaking away from the bunch, in character as well as on the bike. The kind words from various luminaries of the cycling world, launched by his retirement from the sport at the recent USA Pro Challenge, were well deserved, but Voigt should also go down as one of 21st century cycling’s great marketing success stories.

While his race-winning powers waned as he got into and beyond, professional cyclist pension age, his appeal, strengthened by social media, has never been stronger. He is the magnetic badass of the bunch: if he announced he was starting a Church of Jens, he’d have had two thousand fanatical followers in a heartbeat, preaching the gospel: “And Jens did come off the category 1 mountain, and he said to the villagers: ‘Shut up legs. We be smokin’ till Paris.’”

At first, with his funny soundbites, all Voigt was doing was tapping into the relatable sphere of overcoming pain, one of cycling’s primal struggles. Then, he discovered that people absolutely loved it.

It’s not quite a happy accident any more: he will have come to realise the value of showing, even accentuating, his character. It’s not proven too difficult to stand out in a bunch who have spent their entire lives trying to be the fastest on two wheels rather than lively wits, mind. That said, the surprise is that there aren’t more professional cyclists who are playing off their lively personalities and performances like Jens Voigt.

Riders respect him because he’s a damn good cyclist; fans flock around him because he’s funny and different; even journalists go a bit doolally. I remember one hack asking him to say ‘Shut up legs’ into his Dictaphone. Getting that request three hundred times a year must get pretty wearing.

But it’s not like Jens to be short with anyone. My lasting Voigt memory isn’t from one of his Grand Tour stage wins, time-trial triumphs or valiant breakaways. It came after the 2012 penultimate stage Tour de France time-trial around Chartres. I watched him finish his race, sit on the kerb and spend fifteen-odd minutes signing autographs, taking photographs and talking to spectators, as if he realised how much it meant to every single one. 

There are similar stories too, like the time he went to a Coventry Trek store launch and stayed for four hours, rather than the allotted sixty minutes. And they say never meet your heroes…

That’s just Jens: not a creation of modern PR, just the bloody-minded breakaway specialist with a genuine human touch. 



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