This article, “Cycling road trip with Tour de France hero Jens Voigt a thrill for Edmonton lawyer,” was written by Trek Travel guest Don Mallon and originally published in the Edmonton Journal.
“In every relationship there are defining, watershed moments such as a first kiss or a birth of a child. These are instants in time that foretell your life is about to change, take a new direction. The instant a few weeks back when my wife walked into our bathroom to find me shaving my legs had the potential to be such a moment — and not in a good way.
Fortunately she knew this was merely the last step in a long summer of preparation for a cycling trip with one of the world’s top cyclists: Jens Voigt. I am a recreational road cyclist, a roadie. To train for the trip I had upped my weekly cycling mileage significantly, lost over 15 pounds and worked to increase my endurance and leg strength so that I could ride alongside this cycling legend without embarrassment.
Road cyclists theorize, backed by recent wind tunnel testing, that by shaving their legs they significantly improve aerodynamics. My wife knew I was looking for every advantage for this bucket list quest so the limb deforestation came as no surprise.
Jens Voigt has just retired after a long career in which he entered 17 Tours de France and won many races. He was a “rouleur” or all-rounder. At 6-foot-3 he was too big to be a favorite for the overall title in the mountainous multi-stage races but he was a first rate domestique, a rider to be counted upon to catch a breakaway or lead the charge up a hill for his team. He would endure pain and sacrifice his standing to help his team’s favorite rider achieve the winner’s podium.
Most domestiques, while talented in their own rights, melt into the background — but not Jens. For instance, there was that time in the Tour de France on the classic mountain Alpe d’huez when, shortly before the summit, he tossed his empty water bottle as a souvenir toward a young five-year-old fan. It was intercepted by an adult male.
Jens stopped mid-race, rode back down to the fellow and embarrassed him into giving the bottle to the kid. Voigt then got back on the saddle and rode to the finish to a round of applause usually reserved for the stage winner. His honest and outspoken nature won him countless fans around the globe, including me.
So when Trek Travel offered a four-day cycling tour in California over the Halloween weekend with none other than JV, I signed up immediately.
The trip consisted of four days of riding in the Santa Ynez valley. Nestled between the ocean and the Pacific Coast mountain range the area is warm and dry and has an overall look similar to the southern Okanagan valley with some added palm trees.
Our hotel and base of operations was the Alisal Guest ranch, a historic 10,000-acre property first established as a working ranch in the early 1800s. In 1943 the then-owner altered the business model to include guest rooms. Today it is an interesting mix of cattle operation, hotel, golf course and dude ranch.
Our exceedingly competent and convivial Trek guides collected us on the first morning at the Santa Barbara Airport and bussed us to the Sanford Winery, one of a multitude in the area. There we ate lunch, tasted wine, got fitted for our bikes, introduced ourselves to the other 29 participants and eagerly awaited Jens’ arrival.
We didn’t have to wait long. He arrived, having travelled almost directly from Germany, a tall, lanky, smiling, walking, talking vortex. He was, as advertised, funny, self-effacing and energetic. In no time the talk was over and we set out on the bikes for a 40-km cruise through parched countryside and the Danish town of Solvang to our ranch hotel.
Jens initially set a pace of around 35 km/hr. I rode up to his back wheel and, like many past contenders of the Tour de France, into the wind protection of his draft. I was stoked. After a while, he dropped back to chat with as many riders as possible and a group of four of us, all seniors, pace-lined and hotfooted it to home base.
Overall it was a very good day, but it didn’t end there. Trek had prearranged dinners and social activities with Jens and our group for the entire long weekend. We had a lovely evening meal on the patio of Root 46 restaurant in the Danish-themed town of Solvang and chatted with Jens and each other for many hours.
Day 2 was the day of the big climb. The distance from bottom to top of Mount Figeuroa “the Fig” is 10 miles and the elevation gain is over 4,500 feet — yikes! The grade runs from a pedestrian six per cent to a leg and lung searing 19 per cent. To add an additional dimension of cruelty, the powers that be have left a steep section unpaved. Riders must navigate their skinny high-pressure tires over rocks, sand and gravel for more than a kilometer.
As we rode towards the base of the mountain every rider took a turn at the front with Jens for a photo. I chose to fake a sprint past a “fading” Voigt, something that would only happen in my dreams. Like a great sport, he played along. I now have a photo about which I can lie boastfully to my grandchildren.
The mountain climb was as tough and long as expected but reaching a summit is always satisfying and this was no different. The long and fast descent took us to Los Olivos, a small town jam-packed with wine-tasting salons, where we lunched on paninis, had espressos and then paired scrumptious cupcakes and wine samples at Saarloos & Sons tasting room.
Then it was back to Alisal for a well-earned massage. A Halloween party that evening further allowed the tour group members to gain each other’s and Jens’ acquaintance. The group was an interesting mix of people from many walks of life. Among the riders were doctors, a rocket scientist, bankers, homemakers, retirees, a geologist and moi, the sole lawyer in the crowd.
The rest of the weekend blurred by. Unexpected and unusual rain slicked up the roads on the third day causing one rider to crash on a downhill hairpin turn. While the damp and crash subdued us, his return to the ranch that evening with stitches and stories for his grandkids buoyed us back up.
I rode beside or near Jens most of the weekend. My goal was to do that and not get dropped. Mission accomplished. I was also interested to observe how a pro-peloton rider handles himself among those of us who are comparatively DNA challenged. On the second day, within a few kilometers of the ranch, an inexperienced but determined rider was struggling to keep with the group. “Go on” she said “I’ll get there on my own.”
Jens’ response was that cyclists are a community. He told her we look out for one another and we make sure everyone makes it to the finish — together. He rode beside her the rest of the way home.
I cycle for fitness and for the thrill of achieving speeds under my own power, unattainable without the mechanical advantage of gears and chains and light weight carbon. But I agree with Jens that there is more to it. We are a community. Most of us are just domestiques but, as he demonstrated his entire career and continues to demonstrate, that is an honorable role.
I am back home now with autographs, photographs and memories. Jens does not yet know his plans for the coming years but there is a reasonable chance he will repeat this “Shut up Legs” tour with Trek next fall. I’ve decided to take it easy this coming week but after that the serious training starts over — just in case.”