Jens Voigt is one of those cycling warriors whose career had enormous longevity. Like Fabien Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Adam Hansen he was, until his retirement in 2014, one of the old guard of the peloton, a work horse with a massive engine, huge work rate and an indomitable will to survive. He rode in 17 editions of the Tour de France in a professional career that really began when he won the ‘Peace Race’ in 1994 in Germany. Although he wore the Yellow jersey twice, he was never a GC contender, more of a breakaway specialist who could win the occasional stage through aggression and toughness.
Speaking at this year’s Rouleur Classic, Jens or The Jensie as he is fondly known, spoke about how he realized early on that he was never going to be able to compete with the likes of Cavendish at the sprint finish or Contador on the climbs. “”You have to be honest with yourself,” he says, “Take a look at the cards life has given to you, then it’s up to you to make the best game out of what you have. I knew that I had a big engine, I was able to suffer and work hard, and I wanted to win.”
So those cards may not have all been Aces, but they certainly proved to combine to make a good enough hand for him to win two stage victories at the Tour, one at the Giro and a string of one day races. He finished his career by breaking the Hour record in 2014. One of his greatest attributes, he says, was his ability to suffer. “If I’m suffering then I know that all of these others are suffering twice as much as me,” and, “I just don’t give up.”
He also had the courage to go out there, ride hard in the breakaway and risk losing it all as the big guys, more often than not, would chase him down before the finish. “It worked a few times and it failed many more times.” But his philosophy was that, if you don’t try you’ll never succeed. “If you go on a break you have maybe a 10% chance, if you don’t you have a 0% chance.” Chris Boardman, a former teammate was a big influence on him and his encouragement was an important part of his development as a rider. “You hold your life destiny in your own hands. If it works out well for you, that’s down to you.”
Of course The Jensie is known for that unforgettable phrase, “Shut up legs!” But he gave some advice to the audience here that “You cannot abuse it. You can’t use it on a daily basis, only when you really need it in those crunch moments. Also you have to say it as if you really mean it. It’s all mind over matter.”
The “mind over matter” philosophy came from his father. Jens grew up behind the old East Germany before the Wall came down although he jokes that actually “we were told we were born on the outside of the Iron Curtain.” His parents persuaded him to get involved in cycling as he was a hyperactive child who was often getting into trouble. They thought that physical exercise would help him focus. Jens’s personality is still that of an overgrown puppy, bounding with enthusiasm and energy. His former boss at Team CSC Bjaarne Ris said that he was “classic ADD” (Attention Deficit Disorder).
His aggressive and attacking style meant that he was involved in numerous accidents and crashes on the road that have left his body scarred with 120 stitches and 25 needles and pins in his body to keep it all together. As he says, “It wasn’t a pleasure cruise.” One particularly nasty crash in the 2009 Tour could have finished the career of a weaker rider. But “I refused to let a freak accident to end my career.” His wife remained supportive despite having seen the TV footage where “it was spectacular, I was sliding across the road on my face forever…I look like a lifeless doll.” She recognized that he still had that something burning within him, a desire to compete and that he would have been bitter about giving up before his time was up. With her blessing and support he carried on for another five years.
Listening to him talk about the camaraderie with his teammates helps you understand what it is that made him keep going back for more. “It’s like submerging a submarine…You become a band of brothers, you have to become friends. It’s more than just a bike race, larger than life.” And winning those yellow jerseys is “the greatest trophy, like a title or a knighthood. It stays with you for life. It’s super prestigious.”
He’s clearly absolutely devoted to his wife who he refers to as “a bloody hero” and his children: “kids are good, they keep you normal.” He’s involved in a variety of activities in his retirement, as a spokesman for Zwift, an online gaming cycling platform, organizing his own “Shut Up Legs” sportive to raise money for epilepsy and occasionally popping up on TV as a fabulously entertaining commentator. The audience at Rouleur Classic gave him a huge round of applause and could have listened to him for much longer. Great stuff, Jensie!