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Lifetime Achievement Award: Jens Voigt

Jen Voigt's tireless appetite for breakaway punishment and glory made him one of the peloton's icons. He retired at the end of 2014

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Velo magazine, the annual awards issue.

Not long after he had finished his time trial on stage 9 of the 2012 Tour de France, his 15th appearance in the grand tour, Jens Voigt walked over to a shady spot of lush green grass, plunked down in a camping chair near the team van, and began eating a sandwich and chatting with teammate Yaroslav Popovych.

Fans strolled past, a few chatting with him, others snapping casual photos of the affable, articulate German in his RadioShack team wear. French. English. German. Fluently flipping back and forth to cater to the needs of the fans.

It was hard to believe that this regular guy was one of the most popular cyclists of his generation. He employed no posse. No security guards. He wasn’t being swarmed like so many others of the peloton might be, nor would he mind if he were. This was a man of the people.

“I think it’s easy for people to identify with [me],” Voigt said two years later, during an interview with VeloNews at the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, the final race of his professional road career. “I’m a hard-working guy; there is no façade. You get what you see and you see what you get. There are no hidden secrets; I am just the way I am. Apart from being able to ride my bike really hard, I’m just an Average Joe. I have children, I raised them, I clean my garage, we don’t have a gardener, or a nanny; it’s just my wife and I.

“I have two dogs — I walk them, I clean up after them. It’s just everyday life. It’s things like this that make people think, ‘He’s a normal person — exceptional bike rider, but just a normal person.’ To be normal is a good thing.”

Except Voigt is anything but normal. His professional career is legendary for its longevity more so than his proclivity for wins; it has spanned nearly two decades. Still, his palmarés is not without its highlights, including a record-tying five overall victories in the Critérium International, stage wins at the Tour and Giro, a record-tying 17 starts at the Tour, and, of course, at the ripe age of 43, a new hour record [Voigt’s record has since been bested by Matthias Brändle -Ed.].

But more than that, Voigt was a firebrand on the bike. He did not quit; he often agitated. He let his legs do the talking, until his legs got too loud with the pain and he had to … Shut. Them. Up.

Voigt is one of few cyclists in the history of the sport to have coined a ubiquitous catch phrase, “Shut up legs!” which, late in his career, adorned the bikes he rode.

The average fan loved the Average Joe, the aging veteran that would never say die, the angular, lanky racer who would try and animate a race for the sheer joy to be reaped from absolute effort. Late in his career, his breakaway struggles seemed to, more often than average, survive until the end. How’d he do it?

“He just has boundless amounts of energy,” said Bobby Julich, who rode with Voigt at Crédit Agricole for two years, before reuniting with him for another five years at Team CSC. “I used to be roommates with him for quite some years and I’d just be impressed … He was on or he was off. He was absolutely just gibbering, or he’d just be sacked out and a bomb could go off and he wouldn’t wake up. How has he kept that? I don’t know. I think it’s something inside his character. He’s looking for something. He wants to be better. He always has a different objective. And I think that’s important that you always have an objective. Since he got on Twitter and started to understand the fan base that he’s created, they motivated him to stay in the peloton for two or three more years than he would have been if he didn’t have that sort of support.”

But with that support, Voigt defied age, logic, and, regularly, common sense, to craft magical, against-all-odds stage wins across the world.

Think back to stage 13 of the 2006 Tour, 231km from Béziers to Montélimar, the longest stage that year: Voigt got in a five-man breakaway which finished an improbable 29 minutes and 58 seconds ahead of the main bunch. At the line, Voigt outsprinted Óscar Pereiro to take his second Tour stage win. (Periero went on to win the Tour, following Floyd Landis’ suspension, based on time gains taken from that breakaway.)

Think back to stage 4 of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge, which finished in Beaver Creek: Voigt attacked his breakaway companions on Independence Pass, early in the stage, then soloed on for 100km to take victory with almost three minutes to spare.

It was like that until the end. Literally. He tried, in vain, on two occasions, to win from a breakaway at his final race in Colorado. This Average Joe always tried to be a bit different.

“Ninety-seven percent of the [pro] bike riders are very, very good and talented bike riders, but I always try to be in the other three percent,” he said. Which is to say he thought of himself as anything but normal. “Exceptional. Awesome. Out of the line, out of the norm. I always try to be out of the norm.”

It was a style he discovered when he was much younger, then honed through the years as his ever-aging body tried to keep pace with the whimsy of his mind and its youthful sense of invincibility. He wanted to keep winning; his body was less often up to the task.

“I discovered very early on that I was not a good sprinter, so if you arrive alone, no one can beat you in a sprint. So, why not win alone? When I was a junior, everyone was climbing and time trialing about the same, but as I got older, I realized that I was never going to climb like Fränk Schleck, or sprint faster than Cav [Mark Cavendish], or beat Fabian [Cancellara] in the classics, so I had to work to find a way to win,” Voigt said. “I had to ask myself, ‘What sort of skill has Mother Nature given me?’ For me, it was to work the long and hard way, and put every one else in the meat grinder.”

Mr. Popular

Voigt was born in Grevesmühlen, in the far north of what was then East Germany. He joined a national sports school at age 14, and trained in cycling and track and field. He won his first race, the Peace Race, in 1994; he served for four years in the German army before turning professional in 1997 with the ZVVZ-Giant-Australian Institute of Sport team.

Over the years, he has been teammates with some of the most popular characters in the sport, including Chris Boardman — who told him, “It’s much better to be on the giving end of pain than the receiving end.” He’s ridden in the same colors as Ivan Basso, Stuart O’Grady, the Schleck brothers, Fabian Cancellara, and Julich. He also has served as a mentor for countless younger professionals.

“I used to joke with him all the time,” Julich said. “We were at Tour de Georgia one year and it was a time when all the Americans were there, and I told him, ‘Jens, you’re the second-most famous bike racer in America.’ … He’s just a simple guy, he’s an honest guy, he’s a hard worker, there’s no real flash with him, but he gets the job done. He always seems to be at the right place and get himself on TV. But the thing that makes him most liked, I think, is just the simple fact that he takes the time out of his day to make normal people feel special. A lot of big athletes can make the race organizers, or the VIPs, or a politician — if he’s at the race — feel special. But Jens definitely goes out of his way to say or do things for people that don’t really have an influence on him or his income or his racing. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Still, among all the noteworthy and charismatic figures that have influenced Voigt over the years in his 17-year career, none has had a more lasting impact than the first man he knew.

“I think I’ve picked up bits and pieces, but [my mentor] is my dad. You know, my dad was just a workingman and was born in 1946, the year after [World War II] finished, and he had a hard childhood,” Voigt said. “He was born at our family farm, which is north, near Poland, and they had to leave. They left with only what they could carry.

So, they were leaving in summer with all [their] winter clothes on, because they never knew how long they’d be gone. They’d have to walk 20 or 30 kilometers to the next train station, to get on a freight train for days, until they reached German grounds. So, he had a very hard childhood and he did everything he could to make sure that we went to school and had good results in school.”

For an East German, Voigt was, admittedly, a bit of a free spirit at his sports academy. Not so much a rebel, he said, but “different” with his thinking. Behind the Berlin Wall, Voigt was just being himself, something that may have raised suspicions in his youth, but which he jokes about today.

“I’m sure some of my teachers were telling the secret police about what I was saying,” he said. “I’d say that there is probably a file of me with all of the things I said. Both of my parents weren’t in the [Communist] party, so it wasn’t an ideal scenario for us. Had I not met some of the people I met along the way, who supported me, I probably would have been removed from sports school.”

For his final farewell, Voigt became the man of the hour. With the UCI establishing new rules for the hour record that allowed for more aerodynamic track bikes to be used, Voigt was able to better the mark of Ondrej Sosenka, taking the new record out to 51.11km. Under the UCI’s new rules allowing modern aerodynamic technology, the Average Joe had gone farther on a bicycle in an hour than anyone in history. His record stood for less than two months before Matthias Brändle (IAM Cycling) established the new mark of 51.85km.

But is this really the end? Is mighty Jens Voigt done for good? Will there really be no more attacks from the dinosaur of cycling? Julich, for one, isn’t certain.

“You know, I’m still doubting that he’s going to retire [laughs],” Julich said. “I know what it feels like, I know what it sounds like when you’re done — with Jens, he doesn’t quite [give me] that feeling. It’s important that you leave it all out on the road, with no second thoughts. I’ve just gotta wonder if this is actually going to happen. He had such a great send-off; I don’t think anyone has had a better last month, a farewell month like Jens had. So it would be hard to go back on that. But I hope he got it all out.”

His legions of fans most assuredly feel differently; they hope he still has more in the tank. And, likely, he does. Jens Voigt is the Average Joe for the ages. And in 2014, he was the man of the hour.

Editor’s note: Trek Factory racing announced in December that Voigt will stay involved with the team as a consultant.