He was much taller and even a bit leaner than we all anticipated. Jens Voigt stands 6’3″, and even in retirement from pro cycling, his athletic frame shows no trace of fat. Yet he had a confession to make during an hourlong interview at the Trek Bicycle Store in Naperville, Illinois. “When I was racing I was down to 4% body fat, and 8% at most. Now I’m in double digits!”
He admitted that his transition from pro athlete to life as a “normal human being” included some prescient thoughts after breaking the world record for an hour bike ride. “I stood in the shower and looked at my body,” he related. “And realized this was it. This was as fit as I would ever be again.”
Such are the challenges of once being one of the world’s elite bicyclists. Yet Jens Voigt always approached his career with an open mind. Today’s cyclists, he relates, are much more controlled in everything they do. Cyclists on Team Sky, he shared, even receive their food in little packets. “They are measured to the pea,” Jens joked. “And during races, the riders are numbers,” he intoned. “The team director says, ‘Go ride 20 minutes at 485 watts,” he shared. “I’m not sure I would fit in the world of cycling anymore. With me, I looked around and said to myself, “If the sun is shining, it is a good day to attack.”
Yet the master of the breakaway also related that his mind worked in visionary ways at times. “There were times, every couple of years I’d say, where I would get this idea in my mind, and see the whole attack like it was a movie, a picture in my mind. And then I would go do that. It did not come every year, but there were several races like that where I had the idea and made it happen.”
Crashes and doubts
Voigt was asked about the worst crash he’d ever experienced. He recalled the day that he went down to the tarmac at 55 mph. “Later, I saw myself on TV and I thought, ‘I look dead.’ ” But the worst part of the experience was the fact that television commentators speculated that he might indeed be dead. That left his wife and family back home wondering if his life was indeed lost.
The comeback from the crash took months and a bit of soul-searching. it was a solitary decision in some ways. Yet he also recalled a bit of encouragement from an unusual source after the life-threatening crash. “When I came out of surgery hours later I had a note there from Lance Armstrong,” he said. “He was the only cyclist that took the time other than my team members to wish me well. I know what people say about Lance, that he is a monster or something. But it’s not true. The world is not black and white. There are many gray areas. Lance has done some bad things but he is not an all-bad person.”
Murmurs among the crowd of listeners at that point intimated that Jens was confessing to being part of the doping culture of cycling at the time. That’s how cynical the fandom of cycling can be.
The Hour Record
Yet listening to Voigt describe his experience in the one-hour time trial vanquished those considerations. “The first five minutes were not that bad,” he joked. “But then everything started to hurt. And at thirty minutes I was thinking ‘This is really hard, and it’s not going to get easier.’ ”
After the effort, Voigt said his body hurt for days, all the way from his neck to his butt to his fingertips. “It really was a total effort,” he observed.
The idea for the hour record came about as he raced in his final season in a career that included 17 rides in the Tour de France, which included wearing the yellow jersey. That’s 39,000 miles of competitive racing in some of the toughest conditions in the world. Voigt won Tour stages three times and made the racing interesting in many events around the world. His favorite place to ride in the world is South Africa, he said, because around every turn is a “picture postcard moment.”
Behind The Wall
Voigt was raised in communist East Germany. He lived in a secluded world behind the Berlin Wall, a structure that was breached at times, but always reconstructed until the wall finally fell for good. Yet five years after the wall was gone his father still raced to turn off West German radio whenever he saw police or other authorities driving by the garage where he liked to tinker on cars and such. “Those habits die hard. You had to be careful,” Voigt related.
In the oppressive environment of communist East Berlin, Voigt was lured to cycling by the opportunity to ride in a government/state program in which kids could ride and get a free bike. That idea appealed to young Jens, who happened to win his first race, setting him on a course for training in an academy where dorm life was austere and highly competitive. He learned early to be tough and self-reliant.
Coming of age
His first pro team was a bunch of Australians who apparently loved having a good time. That was an experience Jens characterized as eye-opening for his relatively sheltered, innocent worldview. Yet his performances led to invitations to join Continental and then World Pro Teams. That’s where Jens Voigt earned his reputation as a hard man, and his personality became legendary. His famous Shut Up Legs philosophy is now featured in a brand of appealing Trek and Bontrager clothing.
That’s the purpose of Jens visiting a string of Trek stores across the country. Jens also has a book titled Shut Up Legs. Ironically, he forgot to plug the book until a visitor asked him about it during a long and personal autograph session. “Oh yeah!” Jens chirped to the crowd. “I do have a book called Shut Up Legs!”
Still a cycling fan
Such is the humane and honest personality of one of the best bike riders the world has ever known. Yet Jens is a fan of some of his fellow cyclists as well. “I really like Peter Sagan,” he related. “He is so smart, and he’s honest. When the peloton caught me on a breakaway Peter rode up and said, “Jens, I’m sorry…”. Voigt may admire the counterculture and breakaway mentality of the still-maturing Sagan, who seems to defy the conventions of modern cycling on so many fronts.
Riding on a team with Fabian Cancellara was also a treat for voigt. “He’s so tough and strong,” Voigt related. “But one day he comes out of the shower in the team bus and says, ‘This water is hurting my skin!”
Jens also had words of praise for the Trek cycling company for whom he works. “There are a lot of great bikes in the world,” he said. “But riding for Trek was different, because they would talk to the riders and listen. You weren’t just a ‘muscle’ in their eyes. We would give them ideas and they would come back with new bikes. It was really collaborative.”
He also shared that Trek takes the relationship seriously. “Yesterday, I learned that back home in Germany my child was getting tested for a problem with her heart. Trek told me, “Jens, we can fly you home right now.’ But I found out they are doing an electrocardiogram and things will be okay. So I said, ‘No, I’ll stay.’ But it shows you they care about the people that work for them.”
Best and Worst
Voigt was asked to share his best and worst races of all time. The worst he cited as an eight-hour day on a stage of the Tour de California. That was back when the race was held in February. “We rode 120 miles into a headwind the whole way,” he groaned. “And it was raining so hard. My fingertips did not thaw out for three days.”
His favorite race was an opportunity pull his former teammate Bobby Julich to a victory and the yellow jersey in the Tour. “People asked me if I did not want to pull away and win the stage for myself,” Voigt smiled. “But when I saw his family and the looks on their faces it felt so good to be part of that. That was my favorite day.”
The Character of a character
Such is the character of a great cyclist, a father of six and a man figuring out the meaning of his life and legacy. Jens Voigt is the real deal, both passionate and humble, circumspect and amusing. He could have talked for hours and people would have stayed to listen.
Even when his handlers offered to cut off the autograph session, Jens was having none of that. “I want to stay for everyone,” he gestured to the 20 people still standing in line. And that, my friends, is a world-class human being.
A blush with fame
When it became our turn to step on stage for autographed pictures and photo with Jens, the great cyclist glanced at Sue and asked, “Are you a triathlete?”
She was taken aback and said, “Yes.”
“I can tell,” he said, flexing his arms. “You have a body like an Amazon Princess!”
Sue almost folded into herself in embarrassment at them moment. Then came an abashed blush and a thank you for the compliment. Jens signed our Shut Up Legs summer cycling caps and we all posed together. We walked out of there appreciative of the opportunity to meet a genuine hero. Those are few and far between in this world.
TRAIN HARD. COMPETE WELL. LOVE LIFE.