BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, France (VN) — Jens Voigt (RadioShack-Nissan) calmly pulled back the cloth curtain of the massive sponsor-plastered team bus, parked in the shade of a tree-lined Visé boulevard thick with the throngs of adoring fans at the start of stage 2, and was greeted by the sights and sounds he’s seen a thousand times before.
“Jens.” “It’s Jens!” “Oh, Jens, here, here.” The clamor escalated until he smiled his wry grin, and the crowd knew it had not waited in vain.
Seamlessly sliding from French to German to English, Voigt is a crowd favorite. Besides the fact that he seems always to have a jaw-dropping performance in his ever-older legs, he is quick with a smile, witty with a remark, accessible and cordial in equal measure.
Casually taking questions in three languages, he buckles his helmet, fixes his glasses, jokes with onlookers while simultaneously speaking with team staff to ready his bike, grab his bottles, adjust his shoes. It is easy, second nature for the amicable German.
Then, the request comes from someone from the German media: Could he please hold a mobile phone and pretend that he was texting?
“Oh, a bit higher, closer to your face. Oh, yes, good, now, smile, Jens. Danke!”
Taking it all in stride, Voigt laughs when the snickers swell around him. He knows that he is being used, in some sense, like he’s been used a thousand times before. But he’s willing to do it; it’s part of his persona; part of the sport; part of the tradition of openness that sets cycling far apart from every other sport there is.
“I feel like a whoo whoo whoo,” he says, as he tickles his armpits and mimics the chimp that he knows he appears to be.
Of course, it isn’t just the fans that fawn over their favorite riders. The media have daily access to each and every member of the team, the mechanics, even the bus drivers at the start and finish of each stage. To a point.
The next day, Jens exits the bus again to do it all over again. This time, however, with no shade to hide in, his body language says he’s a little less anxious to interact with every clamoring fan or media type. He agrees to take a few questions from an Italian journalist, who happens to have a serious question, one deserving of a lengthy answer. Jens, however, isn’t ready to wax eloquent right now, 15 minutes before the start of stage 3 of the biggest race on earth. He candidly states it’s not possible right now.
“Well, just two seconds?” asks the journalist with a shrug.
“Two seconds? I can’t answer such a thing in two seconds! One-one thousand, two-one thousand. See, it’s not possible,” he says, half jokingly, all Jens. Yet, he continues to discuss for the next two minutes — or maybe a bit more — about how “now is not a good time.”
“I would like to discuss this with you, but I want to give you the right answer. You should talk to our media person. We can do it on a rest day, or at the team hotel, but not two minutes before I have to race my bike.”
So, he departs — or, at least, moves on to strike up a conversation with a team staff member.
Just then, a bolder fan, unaware of the pressed mannerisms that Voigt has just displayed, is able to squeeze his way through the bikes, between team car and bus, and patiently stands beside Voigt waiting for him to finish the conversation. Nervously looking for the opportunity to wrap his arm around the shoulder of the notorious hardman, his wife equally anxious to snap a photo so her husband can make his exit, the time finally comes.
Voigt turns, bumps into the man, and instantly looks for direction: Which way should he look? He knows this routine well; he’s been caught again. His arm automatically wraps around the man’s shoulder. And the floodgates open. Once one fan gets his chance, the others see it as an open opportunity to do the same.
One fan jumps into the frame, but his friend is holding the camera the wrong way. “Allez, allez!” snips Voigt jokingly. He points to the three other fans that are now wiggling to get their chance. He obliges for each of them.
And so it goes, day after day, a lesson in patience and adoration rolled into one.
Dirk Ghyselinck is good friends with Dirk Demol, the general manager for Radioshack-Nissan. He’s seen a lot, from small-time racer to fan, and he knows the sport well, hailing from the heart of cycling-mad Belgium.
“That’s the success of the sport, of cycling,” he says. “If you see the Euro 2012 football … we say in Belgium, ‘footballers have a bigger neck’ than the bike racers, because [cyclists] shake hands with the supporters. The football team, after the match, they go in and you never see them again. [In cycling], there’s more contact and I think that’s the success of the sport.”
And in northern France and Belgium where the Tour now passes, what sets cycling apart even more is growing up with cycling all around.
“Here in France we are born with a bike in the stomach,” says Ghyselinck.
You might think that things would be different at the Tour: tighter security, stricter policies. Nothing could be further from the truth, because the crush is ever-present and unrelenting. Though it may be the biggest race in the cycling world and one of the most dynamic sporting events across the globe, the racers and the race are just as accessible as at your local crit in almost every way.
“There’s not too many sports where you can go to the Super Bowl and get autographs from the entire team,” says Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp). “You can come to the biggest race in the world and see the biggest riders in the world and come up and talk to them and get their autograph. There’s not too many things like that out there. It’s really cool to see.”
Indeed, for fans and riders alike, it sure is cool to see — even if you don’t have two seconds to explain why.