No one should really care about this blog post today, or at least the readership venn diagram would be exceedingly small almost six years after the race. For me, it was an intersection of 1) fans of Jens Voigt; 2) ardent followers of Euro bike racing; and 3) people spending time on the trainer with a DVD or video of the 2005 Fleche Wallone. If you fit into any of these demographics, read on. Otherwise, stay tuned for more 2011-centric posts later.
So, there I was, on the trainer, just starting over training again after a long-ish hiatus; one long enough to feel completely out-of-shape and allowing the packing of the pounds process to have reached full potential. I usually start out the fall/winter training by starting with my oldest videotape race coverage (putting aside the classic 1976 Paris-Roubaix film, A Sunday in Hell, it is LeMond's Tour win-video that I taped on my VCR from Wide World of Sports) and work my way through to the most recent. I have to confess that my collection has starting aging because there is so much cycling on television now that I don't "have" to buy the DVD to actually see the race the way I used to, but I digress. Last year I took advantage of a WCP blow-out sale and bought a bunch of older races - frankly I looked for the most minutes per dollar and ended up with a group of mid-2000's lesser spring classics. So instead of starting with the oldest tapes, I started with the oldest of the races on the new DVD stack and then add them chronologically to the stack for the next trip through. Well, a few DVDs and a few hours of training and I found myself watching the 2005 Fleche Wallone. (See, I do get to the point eventually.)
This race is a 200 kilometer mid-week race held between the Amstel Gold Race and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic. It is less prestigious than the Monuments, but still a great race and hotly contested. This race, for me, was everything that is great and sad about pro cycling right now. And yes, I will apologize right now for being a bummer during part of the rest of this post.
Somewhere in the first 40 km or so, Jens Voigt and a group of lesser riders took off on a breakaway, as is the tradition. The group never got a huge advantage, but they worked together and stayed out front for a long time. As the kilometers passed, however, the strength and class of Jens started to shred the younger and lesser guys until there was just one tough Belgian hanging on and giving Jens brief respites. Eventually, as Jens "Energizer Bunny" Voigt does to everyone, however, the legs started to come off of this young Belgian and Jens was on his own. So, after about 100 km (62 miles) of racing, Jens is out front on a windy, rainy day with more than 100 cyclists interested in getting to the finish line first. Easy task for the 100, right?
You don't know Jens, do you?
Jens managed to just dangle out there, sometimes by as little as 70-80 seconds, sometimes back over the 2 minute mark, but just "there". Mile after mile the teams threw guys up the road only to see them wasted one after the other and no one finishing the job of nailing back Jens. You knew it couldn't last and yet, the longer it did the more you couldn't help but hope for the impossible. As the remaining kilometers drained away, it stayed just as improbable, but the rain, a couple of minor crashes and an unorganized chase meant that Jens was still there as the kilometers remaining dropped into the single digits.
At the same time, though, the very steep, very unforgiving last kilometer loomed. Actually, it is about 1.3 kilometer hill that finishes off the race, with an average gradient of 10% and a maximum of 20-25%. In other words, Jens would take much longer to get up that final hill than the fresher climber (and more specifically the sub-set of power-climbers) that were roaring up his tailpipe.
With a scant 4 km left, a group of 4 riders who got off the front of the peloton caught Jens. He latched on and I kept up the slimmest (and unrealistic) of hopes that the most valiant rider would prevail. Instead, with less than 2 km to go, this group was swept up by the 80+ riders still in the peloton. At this point, Jens was the story of the race, he would pick up minor recognition for topping the climbs first and no story would be written about the day that didn't include his exploits. This is also, however, how most races go and the team leaders count on exactly this situation which allows them to save the most energy possible for the final stomp up that hill.
It is still a good story about cycling at this point. Until the actual finish and adding what we know today.
At the finish line, Danilo Di Luca crossed first, followed by Kim Kirchen and then Davide Rebellin. These three crossed grim-faced, but lips closed. It seems odd even today. How can you race up that final hill and not be gasping for breath? Most of the riders behind them were. Di Luca and Rebellin both have PED (performance-enhancing drug) convictions and Kirchen had a mysterious (some might suggest suspicious) heart attack at age 31.
And Jensy? Finished 50th.
Everything good and not-so-good about cycling all wrapped up in one mid-week classic in 2005. I can't wait to watch it again and no matter how many times I see it, there will be just a tiny, tiny part of me that will hope Jens will finally prevail one day.