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An interview with Jens Voigt, May 5, 2005
The escape artist
A relentless fighter with a reputation for solo attacks, Jens Voigt has had one of the most successful early seasons of his career and is now taking a break to recharge his batteries before the Tour de France. When she asked him about 'his' Liège, the rise and fall of breakaways, a change of strategy and his 2005 Giro tip, Cyclingnews' Hedwig Kröner found out Voigt talks just as he races: once you've got him going, there's nothing you can do to stop him!
Team CSC's Jens Voigt has had a pretty successful spring this year. At the Tour Mediterranéen, he won two stages as well as the general classification; he took the prologue at Paris-Nice and finished fourth after helping his teammate Bobby Julich to overall victory; he was the first to cross the finish line at stage five of Pais Vasco and secured another stage win at the Etoile de Bessèges. Just recently, the man whom the French call 'the German Jacky Durand' impressed with a second placing behind Alexandre Vinokourov at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, after performing one of his dreaded solo kamikaze rides just a few days prior at Flèche Wallonne.
Cyclingnews: Let's talk about your breakaway with Vinokourov in Liège. When did you think that the two of you would actually make it to the finish in front of the chasers?
Jens Voigt: Well, I actually believed in that break very soon. I'm an optimist by profession! [laughs] On Wednesday [at Flèche Wallonne], I was in the lead group for 150 km, including the 50 km on my own, and I almost made it then, too. In Liège, I had Vinokourov with me, who is an excellent rider, a similar fighter as I am. He was in good form and can ride long distances at high paces. Plus, that made one team less to chase in the back, as T-Mobile's Kessler was there too and the team was pretty active that day.
As we gained a minute on them, I thought we'd make it, also because you could sense that they weren't agreeing in the chase behind. The favourites looked at each other, and as T-Mobile and CSC had made the race a fast one before, Di Luca for example was on his own - he didn't have a teammate anymore in the group because they had had to work a lot before. Of course, the leader of a team doesn't want to work in the front, as he usually gets brought to the place of his attack by a teammate. So nobody knew what to do anymore - 'Should I go after them now or wait until a teammate bridges up to me?' they asked themselves. That was our chance to go for victory.
CN: So not only your legs count when you want to a break to succeed, but another important factor is the strategy behind?
JV: Yes, exactly. At the end of the day, whether you're on your own or not, a break never has a chance to succeed if the whole bunch rides against you. You always have to speculate that they either underestimate you, or that they're playing poker behind because they don't agree on who's chasing. Another factor is how the finale is set up: narrow streets, a lot of curves or forests are always in favour of the break, because the peloton doesn't see you. If you've got long and large stretches, where they can see you three minutes off, then that's bad. So there's a number of factors to succeeding in a breakaway. When they're really at you with 8-10 riders, you don't stand a chance.
CN: Do you think the favourites underestimated you and Vinokourov at Liège?
JV: No, not in that case, because they let me get away with a 3-4 minute lead at Flèche Wallonne, but in Liège it was never over one minute. We had to fight very hard for every second that we distanced them. They knew that Vinokourov had placed on the podium of Liège before and that I'm a strong rider too, that can ride fast over long distances. So they never gave us a lot of time in the first place.
CN: What did you think on the final climb before the finish?
JV: Same answer as before: I'm an optimist by profession, and I did think that I could beat Vinokourov. At the end of such a break, it's not about who's got the faster legs anymore, but about who's got more strength left. This wasn't a flat sprint finish, but very hard work, and finally Vino was the one who had more power left. Maybe it was because I had been in the front so long on the Wednesday before [at Flèche Wallonne], and not completely recovered from that. And it's not like Vino is some 'nobody', he's a world class rider. He was simply better than me that day.
CN: It's not going to get any easier for you to break in the future, as everybody should now the danger of letting you get away by now…
JV: Well, that's right, but only to a certain extent. Getting away is not the hardest part, because I think I have a good understanding of race situations. I know when I have a good chance of breaking away. But actually succeeding until the finish line is what's getting harder and harder. If an unknown rider, even a ProTour rider, attacks, the bunch thinks: 'Oh, let's give him 10 minutes, in the end we'll reel him in' - because the peloton can make up one minute per 10 km or so, in the finale even more. So they know exactly how much time they can give you to keep you within reach. So I need to change my tactics.
Three or four years ago, I would have attacked after 50 km to get a long lead ride, and now I jump within the last 50 km if it's still hard enough. With Bjarne, we talked about this and decided it is better to ride 8 km solo and to win, than riding 180 km and getting spectacularly caught by the bunch with 200 m to go. Of course, it's great publicity to do long solos, it gives you a lot of sympathy from the public and it great TV time for your sponsor. But an unspectacular victory is better than a spectacular death. So that's the new strategy: Attack later to stand more chance of actually winning.
CN: Is the introduction of the ProTour a factor in this change of strategy?
JV: A little bit, but not much. It was more the talks with Bjarne or Kim Andersen that led to it. They said, "Jens, you were strong in the Tour last year, but you didn't get away. We need to do this differently." I need to stay put in the first week now, and after the mountains when general classification is already shaped and I'm say, half an hour behind, the other teams will let me get ten minutes in a break because I'm no threat to GC. And if the stage is hard enough not to get back together for a bunch sprint, they might let me drive. Those are the days on which I should concentrate now.
CN: How do you perceive the consequences of the ProTour? Is there a difference in the 2005 racing?
JV: Yes, there is a difference, it's noticeably harder. It started at Paris-Nice, where the field rode in a much more compact fashion - everybody defends his position. Nobody wants to ride at the back of the field and risk getting dropped because the rider right in front of you can't keep up the pace. It's much more nervous and stressful. Paris-Nice was as stressful as the Tour de France, and at Pais Vasco, the pace was also very high. There are absolutely no gifts being made in terms of positioning anymore.
CN: Do you feel that the ProTour has achieved its goal of getting the best riders to all the top races?
JV: I remember what it was like with the World Cup. Kelme, for example, went to Paris-Roubaix and drove their team bus to the first feed zone after 130 km because they knew perfectly well that nearly every rider of their squad would abandon there. It was planned from the start because they knew that they wouldn't stand a chance in that race, it's an honest and objective observation. I mean, when you're a 1.65 m tall Spanish climber, there is no way that you will ever be in front in Flanders or Roubaix! And is it worth continuing at the risk of breaking all your bones? They are just riding these races because they have to, and that hasn't changed with the ProTour. Iban Mayo for example will never be the 'King of the Cobbles'!
CN: What's your preparation for the Tour?
JV: Well, after this break I start again with the Bayern-Rundfahrt, then the Tour de Suisse and the two German championships, the road race and the time trial. And having Ivan Basso in the team changes everything of course. He will ride the Giro now and probably win it - if he rides badly, then he'll get third. But I suspect he'll win. So when he'll be at the start of the Tour de France, he'll have a lot of self-confidence and ambition, and we'll protect our captain from every setback of course. Now, this year the Tour starts with a 19 km time trial, so the specialists will be able to put some time between them and the sprinters! It makes it much less likely for the sprinters to get the yellow jersey with stage wins as they did in previous years with the time bonuses. Petacchi, for example, will be one minute back after 19 km, which means he'd have to win three stages to be in reach of the yellow jersey.
Our plan is this: Bobby Julich and myself will try to ride a very good prologue to start with. Then, we have two stages to get into breakaways and maybe take bonus seconds, or give everything in the team time trial, which is already on the third stage, and which we want to win. If that gets us the yellow jersey, the pressure will be off, and we can continue towards the mountains in a relaxed fashion. And then, either between the two mountain ranges or after the Pyrenees, it will be my turn again to attack! We'll see if I can make it then…
Photography - Jens Voigt's 2005 in pictures
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here