When Jens Voigt pedaled into the crowded Bicycle Bob’s showroom on a beach cruiser from the shop’s inventory, it was easy to envision the “wild child” who once prompted concerned teachers to speak with his parents. Fortunately for Voigt, the adults in his life knew just what he needed: movement and lots of it. Now, at the age of 42 and after 17 years of professional racing, Voigt is retiring, and maybe slowing down, just a bit.
Born in East Germany at a time when Voigt says, “There was no way to be a professional athlete,” he had the good fortune to come of age just as the Berlin Wall tumbled, opening up a world of possibility to the talented young cyclist. Twenty-five years later, enthusiasts gathered around the stage to hear the fan-favorite recount the trials and highlights of his illustrious career, some wearing T-shirts or carrying posters bearing the cyclist’s signature battle cry, “Shut up legs!”
Voigt rode in the Tour de France a record-tying 17 times, wearing the yellow jersey twice. He also won the Criterium International five times.
While his stats are impressive, it’s not the wins that keep the fans coming; it’s the cyclist’s gritty attitude and charismatic personality. After a bad crash in 2010 that totaled his bike and required five stitches in his arm, Voigt was offered a ride by the “broom wagon,” sweeping up cyclists too far behind to catch up. He declined, opting instead to pedal a child’s bike over nine miles so that he could stay in the race.
Voigt has a gutsy, graceless style on the bike. He joked with the crowd, “If I could change one thing, it would be to look better while going fast.” He briefly got his wish in September while completing quick, clean laps around the track to set a new world hour record. Pedaling 51.11 kilometers (31.75 miles) in 60 minutes, it was perhaps the smoothest ride of his life.
He spent several weeks training at altitude to prepare for the attempt. For a man who is always moving, quieting his restless body proved to be the most difficult part of the ride: “The challenge is to really sit still and hold a straight line.” When his family saw video of the ride, they were just as shocked by his smooth pedaling as his fans, “My dad said, ‘Son, is that you?’”
Voigt’s retirement has not meant settling into a rocking chair. In addition to spending time with his wife and six children, he’s booked through Christmas with various events. He plans on “doing it all the first year and figuring out what I’m good at.” This includes press work, writing a book, starting an online shop, and continuing to participate in events led by his sponsor, Trek Factory Racing.
Although his world hour record was broken shortly after he set it, Voigt made it clear that he will not make another attempt. His retirement may be busy, but it is also final, “I don’t believe in comebacks; in general they lead to disaster.”
When a fan in the crowd asked for racing guidance, Voigt explained that strong emotion has played a critical role in his riding. “Sometimes it helps to make yourself angry, to get really mad,” he said. “Sometimes you have to look at the pedals as the enemy and kick them as hard as you can.” But, he also spoke fondly of friends he’s ridden with and of the beautiful things he’s seen while pedaling, including a family of condors flying along the coast after being brought back from the brink of extinction. Overall, he said, it’s “a pretty nice job to have. You get to see the world, new cultures, new languages.”
Voigt says success in cycling requires a huge amount of physical hard work and mental strength. “You have to have self-belief beyond reason … You have your destiny in your hands.” Both of these sentiments should serve him well as he embarks on what looks to be a very adventurous retirement.