Jens Voigt was a force to be reckoned with during his 18-year career.
A product of East Germany, Voigt helped usher in a new era in German cycling that marked the reunification of the “two Germanys.”
Racing for such teams as Credit Agricole, Team CSC, and Leopard Trek, Voigt enjoyed a long run at the top of the peloton that included stints in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, a string of victories at the now-defunct Critérium International, and 60 pro wins.
“Shut Up Legs!” became his calling card, and he emerged as one of the most popular figures in the early 2000’s.
In this week’s “Throwback Thursday,” James Startt and Andrew Hood look back at the highs and lows of Voigt’s long career.
When was the first time you realized he was a different kind of rider?
James Startt: Wow, Jens was special in so many ways. He was a beast of a bike rider and a giant personality.
Perhaps the first time I realized Jens was special was the first time we sat down for dinner down in Toulouse in 1999. I went down to do a feature on the Australians living there—guys like Stuart O’Grady and Henk Vogels—and Jens had moved there to better integrate into his French team.
We all went out for dinner, and Jens told me his amazing story of growing up in East Germany and his long road to the professional ranks. A few years later I visited him in Berlin and we went for a ride. We went past what was once Checkpoint Charlie, and I understood what an impact those years had on him.
And years later, I ended up collaborating with him on his book, “Shut Up Legs,” and we spent a lot of time discussing life behind the Wall
Jens just had this inner drive. He made the best out of each situation and was always positive. And that was reflected in his bike racing, as he simply made the best of each situation, be it going for a stage win in a race, pulling for a teammate, or trying to win the points jersey even for a day.
Andrew Hood: I had seen Jens at the races, but really hadn’t spoken to him that much until he joined Team CSC in 2004. Like many journalists, I quickly realized he was a go-to rider for quotes.
Voigt was — and remains — unabashed in his opinions and views in the peloton. He always had something to say.
I caught up with him at the top of the Plan de Corones/Kronplatz time trial first featured in the 2008 Giro d’Italia. The climb was brutal, with ramps as steep as 24 percent over sectors of gravel and poorly paved ski trails, and it marked one of the early entrées into the new wave of “impossible climbs” working their way into the grand tour blueprint.
Huffing and puffing at the finish, Voigt went on a 20-minute tirade about how ridiculous, over-the-top, and punishing the TT stage really was, and accused the race organizers of treating racers like circus animals. It made for great copy.
Voigt was always very generous with his time with the media, and a few quick questions often turned into 30-minute monologues. Once I caught him at the start of a stage at the Vuelta al País Vasco, and Voigt was on a tear, rambling on about I cannot remember what. He talked so much that the buses were pulling away from the parking lot, and the peloton was rolling down the hill when he finally left to join the race.
A few days later, he came up to me and pointed his finger in my chest, saying, “You owe me 60 Swiss francs! They fined me for missing the sign-in because I was talking to you!”
I wasn’t sure if he was joking, but sure enough, I checked the daily commissaires report, and Voigt was fined 60 CHF for missing the sign-in ceremony. I never paid him. By now, with interest, that sum might be a little bit more.
What was Voigt’s stand-out moment?
Hood: Voigt was often in the spotlight. One critical moment came in the 2004 Tour, when he was riding with Team CSC and team captain Ivan Basso. Fellow German Jan Ullrich had gone on the attack, momentarily gapping Basso and rival Lance Armstrong.
Voigt, who was riding in the breakaway, was ordered to sit up to help pace Basso, who was riding within podium range. Voigt later closed the gap to Ullrich, provoking cries of criticism from German fans. When he later raced up l’Alpe d’Huez, German fans were booing him, and calling him “Judas” as he rode up the 21 lacets.
Voigt would later have many more successes and struggles, but it was that moment in that Tour — now much of it blotted out from the history books — that proved his professionalism and confirmed his loyalties. Like all riders, Voigt was loyal to the team that paid his salary.
Startt: Oh, he had so many. There was that amazing stage win in the 2006 Tour. There were his yellow jersey rides.
But mostly I would say it was the way he finished out his career. In 2013 and 2014, he knew that his career was coming to a close and he just took every opportunity to make the most out of every race. In the Tour that final year, he jumped into the early breakaway on stage one in Yorkshire and grabbed the points jersey. And then on the final stage into Paris, he went on the attack on the Champs-Elysées, if for no other reason than to salute the Tour in style.
And then there was his swansong, the hour record. Again it was classic Jens. He understood that with the new rule changes, he could actually establish a new hour record. And that is exactly what he did, making a mark on the sport until the very last pedal stroke.