Due his 18-year pro career Jens Voigt become the embodiment of suffering on a bike. But his good humour and memorable catchphrases made him one of the most popular riders in the peloton – and he’s not ready for the gold course just yet…
Jens Voigt is reflecting on his final days as a professional road rider. ‘Last November I scheduled a conference call with myself: my legs, my head, my health. We concluded that we could keep it together for one more year, but promised after that there would be no more “shut-up legs”.’
After 18 years of ordering his legs to stop complaining, the 43-year-old finally called time on his pro career at the end of the 2014 season, although he had to persuade his body to put up with the pain one more time when he rode his way into the record books on a Thursday evening in September in Switzerland, when he set a new record for the Hour, the first rider to do so since the UCI changed the rules in May.
Voigt, famous for attacking from the heart and expressing every stretched sinew on his strained visage, was no longer the sacrificial support act riding for the glory of his team leader. Instead, clad in a skinsuit, racing by data and aboard his modified Trek Speed Concept 9, he followed the black line in a calm, assured and rhythmical manner that projected him comfortably past the existing record held by Ondřej Sosenka – 51.115km vs 49.7km. A seemingly nerveless Voigt lapped up the adulation of the capacity 1,600 crowd in the Velodrome Suisse. It looked as if Voigt’s swansong had played out with ease…(Note: Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) has since eclipsed Voigt’s record with the new marker set at 52.491km).
‘It was far from easy,’ Voigt says. ‘When we started the project I thought there’d be two people from the team and my dad to pump up the tyres, not the 15 members from Trek Racing that were there. Eurosport showed it live to 70 countries plus live streaming. I’ve been told we reached 100 million viewers. Mad to think, really, when it’s just me riding around in circles. But, my word, there were nerves. There’s no hiding if you fail.’
Not that 6ft 3in Voigt ever hid from any challenge in a professional career where his reputation for doomed day-long breakaways conceals a palmarès that includes a record five victories at the Criterium International, three stage wins at the Tour de France plus two days dressed in yellow. The German can also reflect on a career that’s seen a cycling club named in his honour, a line of clothing and merchandise decorated with his tagline ‘Shut up legs’ and a global cult following.
His last road race came in September’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Stage four was typical Voigt, his attacking nature sending him on a long breakaway that nearly culminated in a fairytale ending. Unfortunately, a charging peloton rode straight through his dream with 750m to go.
‘That didn’t matter,’ Voigt tells Cyclist. ‘They played a video highlights package of my career at the prize-giving ceremony. Four thousand people waited for me and I had to make a speech. Having been raised in the countryside, I was taught that boys don’t cry. But I cried for only the second time I can remember. The first was at the birth of my first child.’
Young and restless
It’s a long road travelled for a man whose zest for life was noticeable from an early age. Today Voigt is loved for his relentless energy both on and off the bike, but back in his school days the same qualities were seen as a disruptive influence in the classroom. ‘I scored well in lessons but the teachers told my parents I was a wild child. Today they would have diagnosed me with three mental defects and prescribed various therapies and medicine. Instead my parents led me towards sport.’
Voigt had a stab at football but ‘awful coordination’ guided him to track and field. He excelled at middle-distance running before moving onto two wheels. At the age of 14 he attended a national sports school in Berlin in his native East Germany a few years before the Wall crumbled in 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall came too late to prevent Voigt from serving national service but, ultimately, a unified Germany offered him an opportunity to capitalise professionally.
He rose to national prominence in 1994 when he won the Peace Race, otherwise known as ‘The Tour de France of the East’. First held in 1948, the race grew into one of the world’s largest amateur cycle events after originally being conceived to ease tensions between central Europe and the communist east. Because East German athletes weren’t allowed to race professionally it attracted the finest cyclists from communist states, but became irrelevant with the fall of the Soviet Union. ‘That win brought me to the attention of many German teams and I could have earned nearly $100,000 a year racing for them. It was either smaller races, more wins and more money, or do it the hard way – shit money and with a big team.’
Voigt chose the latter option, signing his first professional contract in 1997 with Australian team ZVVZ-Giant-IAS. It was a move that would put as much pressure on his young family as it would on his legs.
‘I have to praise my wife, Stephanie,’ says Voigt. ‘At the time we had one child and she supported me entirely. We gave up our house. My son and her moved into her parents’ home. Everything I had was packed into a little Opel. Three bikes on the roof: winter bike, mountain bike and race bike. Microwave, TV, plates, UHT milk, pasta, blankets, clothes… and off I went to Toulouse to join up with the Aussies. The only French I could say was “Voulez vouz coucher avec moi?”.’ (Maybe it’s an oft-used phrase in the Voigt household – they now have six kids.)
Voigt promised Stephanie and himself that he would give it one year before reassessing. His grand ambitions were to survive the 12 months. Voigt did; the team didn’t, disbanding at the start of 1998. With the help of his DS at ZVVZ-Giant-IAS, Heiko Salzwedel, Voigt joined French team GAN where he roomed with Chris Boardman. (‘Imagine if both our families went out for dinner, we’d have to hire the whole restaurant!’ Boardman also has six children.)
Here Voigt carved out a reputation for relentless attacks, solo breakaways and suffering, though in his five years with the team he also recorded 20 victories. That included winning the team time-trial and stage 16 of the 2001 Tour de France, a flat 229.5km stage from Castelsarrasin to Sarran where Voigt dug so deep that his competitor in the deciding two-up sprint, Australian Brad McGee, blacked out seconds after crossing the finish line. It proved a successful Tour for Voigt, who also sported the maillot jaune on Bastille Day. Presumably, life as a professional rouleur doesn’t get any better?
‘It was fantastic but, in many ways, I take greater satisfaction from winning Paris-Bourges in 2003. The team knew I was going to leave and there was a bit of friction.’ Voigt rubs his hands together to animate friction. ‘The race is on Thursday and we had a big night out on the previous Sunday until five in the morning. So I go home, sleep, don’t touch my bike on the Monday. On Tuesday I have a one-hour ride plus beer and spare ribs. On Wednesday I head to the race. We have an hour easy ride straight from the airport but within 400m I’ve dismounted and disappeared into a local coffee shop. I tell the lads to carry on and pick me up on their return.
‘I hadn’t shaved, looked awful, felt awful… but come the 100km feed zone on race day, I think, “I’m okay. I’ve sweated out the beers. Let’s crack on.”’ Voigt bends his arms and leans forwards. ‘I follow a French rider and watch his move.’ Points two fingers to his eyes. ‘He looks like he’s going to make a break – he’s checking his shoes and brakes – so I sit on his wheel. Then I look back on the climb and it’s three of us.’ Voigt looks behind. ‘So I think, “Podium for me today.” Then on the final circuit I drop the other guy, and then I win the sprint.’ Raises arms. ‘The other guys in the team were so ashamed. I was there with a beer belly and win. It took guts and I suffered a lot.’
When Voigt recollects, he morphs into a physical comedian spawned from the loins of Buster Keaton. Though fluent in French and English (as well as German, of course), every idea, every thought, is brought to life by his overactive limbs. It’s an endearing quality and, on a professional circuit where personalities are suppressed by media training and, on occasion, the omertà, it’s why he’s proved one of the most popular cyclists of the past 20 years.
Voigt also rivals Keaton in the injury stakes (Keaton’s comedy-induced accidents included a crushed foot, broken nose, nearly drowning and a broken back). ‘This finger will never be straight,’ says Voigt, confirming as much by not straightening his finger. ‘I’ve had 120 stitches in my face; three broken collarbones; bad injuries to both knees, hips, elbows; 11 broken bones. I think I have around 25 pins in my body.’
Facing the pain
Possibly the most harrowing accident happened in 2009 during stage 16 of the Tour de France. He lost control of his bike at high speed on the long descent of the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard when racing for Saxo Bank, falling heavily on his side before smearing his face down the tarmac for a disturbingly long time. An unmoving and bleeding Voigt was airlifted to hospital in Grenoble where, once the platelets had begun to heal the wounds, a broken orbital bone in his eye socket proved the most debilitating of his injuries.
It was the last of only three times out of a record-equalling 17 appearances that Voigt failed to reach Paris, though number four looked a very real prospect 12 months later. Again racing for Saxo Bank, he crashed hard on another descent, this time the Col de Peyresourde. His bike was written off. Unfortunately the team cars had driven away and it appeared the unforgiving broom wagon would sweep up another victim.
‘That’s when I borrowed a children’s bike from some youngsters. The bike was canary yellow and came with toe clips. It was way too small for me but I must have ridden it for about 15km.’ By then, manager Bjarne Riis had become aware of his German rouleur’s minor problem and deposited a Voigt-sized Trek with a local gendarme for Voigt to mount on arrival. In visible pain, Voigt completed the stage within the time limit and rolled into Paris a few days later.
Suffering and Voigt are inseparable – so much so that his famous pain-defying proclamation ‘Shut Up Legs’ has become a brand in its own right. As we talk to him after he has just led a 50-mile charity ride in support of the Epilepsy Society and Oakhaven Hospice, we are surrounded by ‘Shut Up Legs’ posters. But the man is much more than his catchphrase.
Here is a rider used to long stretches at high wattage, shielded by no-one, exposed to all. It’s his ability to suffer that made him such a perfect match for the Hour record.
‘The Hour is a short, intense and vicious pain. During a normal race you suffer like hell but you know it’ll stop at the top of the climb. Not in Switzerland. The pain just got worse and worse in an exponential line. In the last ten minutes, the pain doubled every minute – especially between my legs. It ended up resembling raw steak and that’s why I regularly stood out of the saddle.’
One of the most popular theories on pain and fatigue derives from Professor Tim Noakes of Cape Town University. Noakes’ Central Governor Model suggests the brain and how it perceives discomfort is the reason for slowing down or ceasing exercise, not due to traditional theories like oxygen deficit or lactate build-up. Noakes says, ‘My view is that the symptoms of pain are completely illusory. The best athletes are the ones who
make the illusion interfere less with their performance.’ The model states that your muscles send signals to the brain, and the brain tells the limbs to slow down in order to preserve the body’s homeostasis. And usually the recreational rider obeys, thinking that the legs specifically are causing the problem.
With Voigt it’s as if this ‘Central Governor’ conversation is externalised and the limbs, under an immense German verbal assault, just keep going. And going. ‘If you’re a great athlete you can overcome the common symptoms of fatigue,’ says Noakes.
And there’s no doubting that Voigt is a great athlete. In fact, so strong is Voigt’s physiology that his immediate future revolves heavily around… riding his bike. ‘My heart pumps out 1.1 litres of blood each beat compared to maybe half that for most people. As my heart’s grown stronger, the walls have become more muscly and thickened. The team doctor told me that if I just stopped, I could have severe problems with my heart.’ Instead, the doctor advises that Voigt’s 2015 calendar should comprise around 65% of what he covered in 2014. ‘I cycle about 35,000km a year of which around a third is racing. So basically I’m supposed to train like a pro without the chance of showing off
at the races. I can’t see it happening!’
As well as controlled ‘detraining’, Voigt will spend next year under contract to Trek in various guises, whether that’s on product development, as an advisor or working with Trek Travel on bike tours. ‘I’ll certainly be at the Tour Down Under even if it’s as a driver.’ After 12 months, both parties will then agree on any future role. His affable manner, unique insight and colourful turn of phrase make him an attractive pundit for cycle-friendly media, and he has a book in the pipeline, too, which should be out by Christmas.
As for physical challenges, some have piqued Voigt’s interest but nothing’s fixed. ‘I was stupid enough to look at a race called The Munga in South Africa. It’s a 1,000km mountain bike race with two riders in each team and $1 million prize money. But not at the moment. I’m happy to consume a lot of spare ribs and take a few steps back in terms of suffering, but ten steps forward in life quality. I don’t want to suffer anymore.’
The very best of Jens…
Paris-Nice 2005, final stage
‘One of my team-mates and best friends, Bobby Julich, was wearing yellow but we were under huge pressure from [Alejandro] Valverde who was after GC. Every attack, every break, I covered. I felt so strong that day I could have led into Nice but this was Bobby’s day, the day he came back and won GC. I won the green jersey and standing together on that podium was a special feeling.’
Tour de France 2006, stage 17
‘[Floyd] Llandis had overcome a disaster the previous day to send him to victory – although obviously it turned out by doping. He blew the peloton to pieces on that stage but I turned myself inside out because we [CSC] had Carlos Sastre in a promising position in GC. I remember this long climb and I suffered like a pig to keep Carlos near the front. I reached the summit and Bjarne [Riis, DS] said, “I’m sorry but you really need to chase now.” The mother fucker. I was in huge pain and could easily have said, “Look, I just don’t have it today.” But I carried on and, with Llandis’ eventual disqualification, Sastre actually won that stage.’
Tour of Germany 2006, final stage
‘It’s a hilltop finish. I’m in yellow but I’m not a natural on the climbs. Then my nearest rival, Levi Leipheimer, attacks and I’m struggling. But I remember, near the top is a flat stretch. As long as I can use the big chainring, there aren’t too many people who can drop me. 39/25 is a different matter. On the ascent I’m within two heartbeats of exploding. But I don’t. We hit the flat and I think “fuck it” – so I ride right past them and ultimately win the race. The TV producer compared it to Ben-Hur.’
‘When Carlos Sastre won the Tour in 2008 there was a lot of friction between him and the Schleck brothers. We [CSC Saxo Bank] went into the Alpe d’Huez stage where Carlos won and took the jersey off Frank. We’re sitting in a team meeting after the stage and Carlos isn’t happy that they chased so hard, accusing them of paying others to chase hard too. Since that moment, there was little talk between them. It’s a shame as that was a great Tour for us.
‘We didn’t tackle the doping problem hard enough at the start and we paid for it. We went to the bottom but I’m sure we’re on the way up. It’s one of the reasons I’m still competitive at 43. Hard work is rewarded now. Not just who has the best doctor.’
… A stronger peloton
‘The general quality of the riders and strength in depth is so much higher now than it used to be. In 1980 Bernard Hinault won Liège-Bastogne-Liège by nearly 10 minutes after attacking with 80km to go. Now if you think Gilbert, Sagan or Froome is the strongest and one of them attacked alone with that far to go, we’d be pissing ourselves laughing.’