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A Farewell to Jens!

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As the bell rang for the final finishing circuit of the USA Pro Challenge in Denver on Sunday, Jens Voigt was where we expected to see him - off the front, legs churning, bike rocking back and forth, in the final breakaway of his storied career.

Chris Graythen

As the inevitable catch was made moments later, numerous riders reached out to pat Jens! on the back, congratulating him on a job well done and ushering him into retirement. Veteran riders said goodbye to an old friend and nemesis while a younger generation watched as an idol and one of the sport's larger-than-life figures pedaled towards the finish line of his career. In his own words, Jens' last race ended in a fitting fashion - in a breakaway doomed by the superior power of the peloton chasing behind.

We become accustomed to those who show up in the breakaways over and over. They are the entertainers, an opening act for the action that will come later. Sometimes, they get the chance to headline, a disinterested peloton trundling along behind or a chasing one mis-timing a catch. We get to know the attackers for their personalities - Voeckler the quintessential camera hog, Jacky Durand the loco locomotive, Sandy Casar the quiet assassin. Voigt was the kid, thrilled to be in the breakaway, looking for any opportunity to pedal hard. His style isn't graceful in the slightest - more of a thrashing of the bike - but it worked. He won two stages in the Tour de France - in 2001 and 2006 - and one in the Giro d'Italia. It may not be quite the tally of riders like Thomas Voeckler, whose Tour stage win is almost an annual event, but Jens was much more than just a stage hunter.

No, Jens! was someone who loved to thrash himself on the bike. He delights in little more than simply going as hard as he possibly could on the bike, and that quality is what endeared us to him so much. He was notorious for saying "shut up legs" to the point it began appearing on posters, t-shirts, and the like. He won the Deutschland Tour twice and Criterium International a record-tying five times, not by being the best climber or time trialist but by being an all-rounder who could hurt and hurt and hurt.

It wasn't Jens's love of pain - or conquering it - that we loved. He was no masochist who loved to hurt for the sake of hurting or a rider who accepted the necessity of suffering in order to win or serve his team. Instead, it was the humor and joy with which he approached all of his job that made him a favorite. Clips of his cheery, seemingly perpetually espresso-fueled antics abound. The joking about not going in the break for once, the quips about his team being able to win the Tour de France if Astana's squad got attacked in the mountains by bears - these are the reasons Jens became a fan favorite much more than the other breakaway specialists of his era. These are the reasons we at the cafe always put an exclamation point after Jens!'s name; nothing is low key with Jens!

Maybe it was also the stubbornness, a refusal to quit attacking, or to quit riding in general. In 2010, he had a crash on the descent off the Col de Peyresoude and was passed by all the team cars, leaving him no way to replace his bike and continue racing. The broom wagon came and he refused to hop in, electing instead to chase the grupetto for 15 or 20 kilometers on a children's bike three or four sizes too small with toe clips on the pedals. Jens had exited the 2009 Tour de France prematurely after a serious crash that left him with broken cheekbones and a host of other serious injuries and the thought of not making it to Paris a second year running was too much to bear. This year, he was the oldest rider in the Tour de France, as he was last year too. When many professionals exit the sport by the time they are 35, Jens kept racing until he was 42. In the last years of his career his strength began to wane some, but there were still memorable moments like his win in the fourth stage of the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge and his narrow loss on stage 4 of this race when he was caught with just over a kilometer to race.

Now that his final race is over, Jens! claims he will be hanging up his wheels for a while, taking time to spend with the family he created with the same exuberance he chased breakaways with. But even the family man Jens we catch glimpses of in interviews will probably reach for the bike before too long in search for a respite from the din of the six children who welcomed him home for good this week. Can we really imagine Jens! not riding around his town with a trailer full of kids behind him? I didn't think so. May the wind always blow at your back from here out, Jens.