The indomitable German was raised in communist East Germany and enjoyed an 18-year pro career that included a stint in the yellow jersey, several dramatic breakaway victories, and 59 pro wins. One of his career highlights was being part of the Crédit Agricole team in 2001 that beat the might U.S. Postal Service in the team time trial. His racing acumen and daring tactics soon made him a fan favorite, and his “Shut Up Legs” refrain became his popular calling card throughout his career.
What is your greatest ‘Jensie Moment?’
James Startt: It is really impossible to pick out one moment with Voigt because there are so many. One of the really special qualities that makes Jens so unique is that he has that ability to make even a fleeting encounter feel special due to his unique sense of humor, and his ability to connect with people. It is a rare trait.
I had the honor of collaborating with Voigt on his autobiography, “Shut Up Legs,” and we visited on several occasions in Paris or in Berlin. We first met back in 1999 in Toulouse, where he was living and training with the Australian riders like Stuart O’Grady and Henk Vogels on his Crédit Agricole team. We sat across the table at dinner and connected quickly and remained friendly for years to come.
One of the great memories I had with Jens was when I went to see him in Berlin at the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a truly historic moment for both of us, but one we experienced very differently. He took me to his old sports school in what was East Berlin and explained to me where he was the night the Wall opened, and when he took his first walk into the West. And we have had endless conversations about what it was like growing up in communist Germany, one more fascinating than the next.
But perhaps my most memorable moment was one of my briefest encounters with Voigt. It came at the end of stage 13 in the 2006 Tour de France. It had been a terrible Tour for his CSC team as its leader Ivan Basso pulled out of the race before the start due to his alleged involvement in Operation Puerto and the team struggled to ride with purpose. But then on stage 13, Voigt pulled out one of his biggest rides ever, jumping in a breakaway and winning the stage.
I ran after him as he crossed the line and positioned myself just in front. There was a swarm of photographers muscling for position. But suddenly he turned towards me and gave me one of my all-time favorite shots. He was clearly in a state of disbelief, a moment filled with joy and exhaustion, as he tried to filter everything that had just happened. I love the frame of this image in particular, and every time I look at it, I think back on that day in 2006—a day of absolute vintage Voigt.
Andrew Hood: Jens Voigt was always what journalists call a “good quote.” And Voigt became a great go-to source in the peloton to talk tactics, and he could break things down better than anyone. I remember one particular Giro d’Italia in 2008 with a climbing time trial up Plan de Corones, a towering rocky knob that featured the final kilometers up and over what was little more than a goat path. This was just as the grand tours were regularly throwing all kinds of new types of finales and road conditions at the peloton. I was waiting at the top getting quotes from riders on their reaction to the unconventional race conditions. I asked Voigt what he thought after he crossed the line, and he uncorked a hilarious, non-stop 15-minute diatribe about how race organizers were treating riders like circus animals. This was the full-on, unplugged “Jens Treatment” that no one in today’s peloton can match.
We all have a personal anecdote with riders. Is there one that stands out with Voigt?
Hood: Years ago, I was interviewing Voigt before the start of a stage at the Vuelta a País Vasco. Once you get him going, he’s hard to stop. And as a nosy journalist, we always ask one more question. As we stood somewhere between the start of the race and the parking area, I could see the buses pulling out and the crowds thinning out. It was obvious that the race was about to start or had already rolled away. Voigt finally sped away, and I didn’t think twice about it. A few days later, he came up to me and said he was fined because he missed the sign-in, and insisted that I pay him the penalty, which I think was about $60. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, and I said, yeah, sure, I’ll send you a check. Of course, I never paid him, but every time I would interview him in the ensuing years, he always brought up that unpaid fine. And it remains unpaid. With interest, it’s probably triple that by now.
Startt: Well, this isn’t a personal anecdote at all really, but simply one of my most memorable instances following Jens. It came in the press room during the 2005 Tour de France, when after stage 9, Voigt grabbed the yellow jersey after making the day’s breakaway. Voigt had raced brilliantly in the early season and was off to a good start in the Tour, but the mountains were coming quickly and it was unclear how long he could hang onto the yellow jersey. And when a journalist asked him just how long he hoped to keep the jersey, he gave one of the funniest answers ever, “Well, considering that tomorrow is a rest day, I am pretty confident that I can keep the jersey at least another day !”
Needless to say, we were all in stitches. But Voigt always had that uncanny ability to make light of a situation and yet remain pertinent. And while he did manage to keep the jersey during the rest day, he lost it quickly the following day when the race finish in the Alps at the ski resort of Courchevel. And in what can only be considered the cruel irony of sport, Voigt finished out of the time limit the following day and was eliminated from the race. In all likelihood, Voigt could never have predicted such a sudden collapse. But if his moment yellow was meant to be a swan song, it was a pretty great one at that.
Voigt was such a unique rider. Who today comes closest to fitting that mold today?
Startt: It is safe to say that they had to throw away the mold when Voigt finally retired in 2014. Simply nobody could ever hope to reproduce that combination of brute strength with such light-hearted wit. But I would say that Belgian Thomas De Gendt comes closer than anyone. It is no surprise that De Gendt told me in an interview a couple of years ago that Voigt was actually one of his idols. And like Voigt, De Gendt possesses that raw brute force to make any breakaway he gets into a dangerous one. And as far as long break riders go, De Gendt has had even more success I would say, mostly because he has never had to sacrifice himself for big GC riders like Voigt had to do with the Schleck brothers, Carlos Sastre or Ivan Basso. And it is really amazing to watch De Gendt in action, picking apart a breakaway as he steadily increases the pressure as a stage progresses. But De Gendt is less outspoken. When you sit down with him he is a real straight shooter, but he is more timid by nature, so the Voigt mold remains unfilled.
Hood: As far as riders with strong personalities and a great sense of humor, Voigt ranks right up there. Today’s riders are a bit different. With so much of their lives and insights being part of the social media landscape, that the traditional relationship with journalists has changed over the years. Today, Geraint Thomas is known for his dry wit, and maybe someone like Rigoberto Urán can bring the force same force of personality that Voigt did back in the day.