Thursday, July 5, 2012

2012 Tour de France: Stages Four and Five

Every sport stakes out its own balance of action and potential. Basketball is mostly action, while complaints about baseball’s inherent “boringness” stem from its nature as a sport in which something could happen at any moment, but mostly doesn’t. The only true shock in a flat sprint stage is when the breakaway succeeds. The plucky few who dance away from the peloton at the beginning of the stage are the other whom the main group needs to define itself, or at least choose its pace. The goal is to pedal as languidly as possible but still catch the breakaway when things ramp up at the end for the final sprint. Whether because of weather, crashes, or miscalculation, every so often a breakaway beats the odds and succeeds.

Neither stage four nor stage five was such a day. So let’s talk a little about Jens Voigt.

Jens Voigt is my favorite cyclist, and I’m hardly alone in that. It’s not because he’s particularly great at cycling; if we’re talking palmares, he’s won the Criterium International five times, a grip of other small races, and put in a few days in the maillot jaune, but he’s hardly a world-beater. At not quite 41, he’s the oldest cyclist in this year’s Tour, but that’s not particularly noteworthy. Jens Voigt’s charm stems from the duality of persona: he is the most affable quote in the peloton, a German Barkleyesque figure who will always tell you what is on his mind. He’s a good bit more housetrained than Sir Charles, but he has the same shooting-from-the-hip style of avoiding cliché in favor of telling you how it is. At the same time, when he’s on the bike he’s happiest when he’s at the front, putting up a pace high enough that he knows it’s hurting everyone else to hold his speed. His most famous quote is his motto “Shut up, legs,” but the most revealing of his bon mots is “Between you and me, we get paid to hurt other people. How much better can it get?”

Jens is one of the last products of the East German cycling program. The eastern bloc in general produced a lot of hard men cyclists, forged by countless hours of crushing training to perform like athletic machines, but because cycling is primarily a Western European sport, East Germany had more than its share. Voigt never reached the heights of his contemporaries Andreas Klöden and Jan Ullrich, but his bubbly, accented no-bullshit act turned him into a beloved figure in a way that the others never managed. Klöden has remained, at least outwardly, a closed book; Ullrich partied too hard once the wall came down. Voigt tweets about his children and domestic hilarity, in between bouts of doing his damndest to inflict suffering on his coworkers. He’s equally at home telling the internet about goldfish troubles, riding a children’s bike for 40 km because he wrecked his in a crash during a race, or spending 20km putting the rest of a race in a bad place.

Jens has gotten a lot of camera time so far this Tour. He and Yaroslav Popovich, another old eastern bloc warhorse on the Radioshack team, have been doing the bulk of the pace-setting for teammate Fabian Cancellara to protect his yellow jersey. He’s easy to pick out, with his colorfully mirrored shades and lanky frame, cheerfully spinning away at the front of the pack. He doesn’t get to cause any pain until the roads turn uphill in the Pyranees and Alps in a week or two, but it’s always nice to see him. You never quite know what he’s going to do, but you can count on him doing it as hard as he can, and then saying insightfully odd things about it afterwards.

What’s that? You want to know what actually happened in stages four and five? Oh, right. Both breakaways were caught, so both stages were field sprints. In stage four, Andre Greipel’s Lotto-Belisol teammates led him out perfectly, and he sling-shotted his way to the stage victory. In stage five, a crash near the front with 2.7 kilometers left cut down the leadout teams, so the top sprinters who weren’t cleared out by the crash had to jockey with each other for position. Greipel timed his move there perfectly too, and won again. He trails our dancing friend Peter Sagan and Matt Goss for the green sprinter’s jersey, but is ahead of Mark Cavendish, who is still the odds-on favorite to wear that jersey on the Champs-Elysee. The sprinting race is shaping up to be a brawl between the expected heavyweights, unless Sagan can continue to buck the established pecking order.

Photo via Getty Images

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