It took me 4 years in the Tour de France to be able to capture my first yellow jersey; and since then, I managed a stage win in that same Tour. I can say it did change my career for the better and it also changed my salary, as well.
"The Yellow Jersey, next to World Champion's Rainbow Jersey, is the highest possible trophy in cycling..."
In that 2001 edition of the Tour, it was the 88th edition of this race, my team had a great start from the beginning. Already at the second stage, my team Credit Agricole had 5 riders in a bigger breakaway group that had formed. With a quite vicious crosswind section earlier, the group had grown to about 30 riders strong. There was a common interest to ride together to the finish line. We did not manage to win the stage. After we had dropped the former yellow jersey, Christophe Moreau, we gained enough time that my teammate, Stuart O'Grady, could take over the Yellow Jersey. Already that made me incredibly happy to have the Yellow Jersey within the team, and it took a lot of pressure off the team.
The Yellow Jersey, next to World Champion's Rainbow Jersey, is the highest possible trophy in cycling; and as you can imagine the most fought for trophy, as well. Having the Yellow Jersey within the team and getting all the TV and radio attention, plus all the headlines in newspapers worldwide makes every team owner happy. And it makes the partners and sponsors happy and takes enormous pressure off every team rider.
Three days later, we managed to win Stage 5, a 67 km long team time trial and, of course, with our win we defended Stuart’s Yellow Jersey. And we did win ‘a la pedal’ like the French would say. Means we won with the pedals and not by luck; but, we prepared and trained that TTT better than other team. It was one of those days where everything just aligned and we beat the big teams of that era, like US Postal, ONCE or Deutsche Telekom.
Finally, Stage 7, my day arrived. We entered the Ardennes Mountains, not the Alpes, yet; but some shorter, steeper climbs and a lot of them. As the team with the leader’s jersey, it was up to us to control the race. With about 30 or 40 km to go, I saw Laurent Jalabert attacking. And “Jaja” as we call him, was a heavy hitter, a big name, and a numerous Tour stage winner. My friend, Stuart O'Grady is a fast sprinter, a really good time-trialist; but he did not like the mountain so much. On the other side, I was only an average sprinter; but I did ok in the mountains. So, our best option was that I follow Jaja. By doing so, I would secure the Yellow Jersey to stay within our team. It would just change from Stuart’s shoulders to my shoulders. A quick look back to Stuart, in yellow, he checks the attack of Jaja. At that point, he listens to his own body and realizes he won’t be able to follow this speed uphill. He nods his head, giving me freedom to go after Jaja. I sprinted full gas uphill to catch that group. There were four riders, Laurent Jalabert, Laurent Roux, Ivan Basso, and me. Quickly we gained a solid time gap; and it became obvious that I would be the new leader of the race after the stage finish. I was nervous and excited. To be perfectly honest, my main thought was “Don’t fuck this up, don’t get dropped and ruin everything!” I was telling myself, “Millions of people are watching this on tv. Mom and Dad watch this. All my friends watch this. Don’t mess it up. And my entire team counts on me. They trust me to bring this home.”
Fortunately, I did rise to the challenge and managed to take a second place at the stage finish and take over the Yellow Jersey. Not an easy task, because on the last downhill towards the finish line, Jaja attacked. And Ivan Basso crashed right in front of me by trying to follow Jaja's speed downhill. I just managed to avoid crashing on top of him. Jaja gained a few precious seconds and we never saw him again. But I only focused on getting that exclusive Yellow Jersey.
Then the magic moment. When I was waiting behind the podium to be called up for the ceremony. Daniel Mangeas, Tour speaker for 40 years, finally calls the new Yellow Jersey. Under the roaring noise of the crowd, I walked out and onto the podium. Still, even today it remains one of the goosebumps moments that will always give me goosebumps for the rest of my life. I just could not stop smiling all day, all evening.
After the podium, I had, of course, anti-doping control, then a press conference, and a transfer to the hotel. With all the things going on, I had completely forgotten to eat. The sandwich that my sports director handed me, during the drive to the hotel remains one of the best sandwiches I have ever had in my life. Arriving at the hotel, there was a local band waiting for me. They played a few pieces of music for me while walking inside the hotel. My team was there, giving me standing ovations. Everybody was smiling and relaxed and happy. I had a million phone calls from friends and my telephone mailbox crashed because of voicemail. Remember back then? We did not have much internet and no whatsapp at all. Typing a classic SMS took one minute with the old phones with a keypad instead of a modern touchscreen. And it didn't stop that night. The next morning at the start line, I got called to the first line with my Yellow Jersey and all the great cyclist of that era came to congratulate me at the beginning of the stage. Mario Cipollini, Johan Museeuw, Laurent Jalabert and, of course, also Lance Armstrong. It was like magic, did not wanna miss a second of this day.
Wearing the Yellow Jersey is a little bit like getting knighted by the queen. When I will show up at any bike race, even in the year 2035, they will still announce me, “And here comes Jens Voigt, former Yellow Jersey of the Tour de France.” They will never say, “Here comes Jens Voigt, triple winner of the Tour of Bavaria.”
Wearing the Yellow Jersey is simply fantastic, magic, thrilling, it gives you wings; and literally, every single person on the side of the route knows your name and cheers for you. It doesn’t matter if you are a German bike rider, or French, or British, or American. It is quite a unique feeling, and I am grateful that I had the chance to not only wear that jersey once, but twice.
Best wishes, Jens
Photos courtesy of wikipedia.