It was agonising, and not particularly pretty, but Jens Voigt succeeded in his attempt to break the world Hour record at the Velodrome Suisse in Grenchen. In his last act as a professional athlete, he rode 51.115 kilometres, breaking Ondrej Sosenka’s previous best by over a kilometre.
Voigt was right on schedule throughout the attempt, even managing to lift himself in the last 10 minutes to bring his average speed up above 51 kilometres per hour, right at the top limit of the target he’d set himself. Despite repeatedly having to raise himself from the saddle to stretch his back and legs and relieve the pain, his momentum never looked like slowing significantly.
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As Europe’s The Final Countdown echoed around the track, Voigt passed 199 laps, and broke Sosenka’s record with 90 seconds still to ride. With the crowd on their feet and Voigt’s face locked into that famous grimace for one final time, he managed still to squeeze out more, adding five and a half more laps before the velodrome clock ticked over to one hour. And since the rules of the Hour require the rider to finish their final lap, we were treated to just a few more exquisite seconds of Jens Voigt.
“I couldn’t ask for a better goodbye than this,” said Voigt after his attempt. “It was a very intense event.”
Voigt compared the Hour to being in a breakaway in a road race, a situation he has been in many times before. “There’s no break in the hour. No uphill to get out of the saddle, no coasting or hiding behind a team-mate,” he said. “It was like being in the last 15 kilometres of a break, just trying to make it before getting caught by the peloton. I had to get out of the seat to relax my behind a little. I can hardly walk now.”
Brian Cookson, the UCI president, also paid tribute to Voigt. “It was a great performance by a superb athlete,” he said. “We wanted to bring back the magic of the Hour, and Jens has done a great service to cycling tonight.”
Voigt has now surely opened the floodgates for further attempts. The Trek team now have a wealth of data to put into an attempt by Fabian Cancellara. The Swiss rider had looked at breaking the “Merckx” position record, until the UCI relaxed the technical regulations this year, opening the record up to riders using tri-bars. Now that Voigt has paved the way, Cancellara could realistically expect to add a couple of kilometres to Voigt’s distance. Tony Martin, who has overtaken Cancellara as the world’s best time triallist in the last couple of seasons, could break it, and Bradley Wiggins, who is by far the most experienced track rider among the world’s best time triallists, could make it a target.
During his post-Hour press conference, Voigt said that the challenge now was for Wiggins, Martin and Fabian [Cancellara] to try to set a new distance. “OK, boys, it’s up to you. Give it to me,” he said.
But these attempts, even if they happen, are in the future. The Hour record holder is Jens Voigt, who set a new mark the day after his 43rd birthday, at an age when most professional bike riders have been retired 10 years or more. As a finale to an illustrious career, it could not have been more fitting. Although Voigt’s greatest exploits have all happened on the road, the Hour attempt gave him a definite stopping point, and a memorable one.
“I’m happy, but also a little sad. I will miss the fans, the atmosphere and talking to them,” Voigt said. “It’s also a little frightening. I’ve had 33 years of cycling and it’s all gone now.”
Voigt is one of the most popular riders in cycling – his attacking style, and evocative quotes make him a fans’ favourite. The crowd at the Velodrome Suisse, cowbells, Mexican waves and all, carried him round the track on a surging groundswell of noise. And once the presentations were made, the German national anthem sung and the speeches done, Voigt left the VIPs and bigwigs at the centre of the velodrome, walked across the track, climbed over the barriers and went into the crowd, to shake hands, pose for selfies, and enjoy one last communion with the fans. It was an emotional but happy farewell.