Listen to the Jens Voigt Babbittville Radio interview here.
|Bob Babbitt:||Our next guest has had 17 starts at the Tour de France, 2 stage wins, 5 wins at the Criterium International and he set the hour record at the age of 43 going 51.1 kilometers an hour, the amazing Mr. Jens Voigt.
Jens, how are you?
|Jens Voigt:||I’m very good. I’m just busy with the kids’ shuttle. I just drove all the kids back home. I’m all good. It’s a great day.|
|Bob Babbitt:||Wait, all the kids, what do you have 6 kids?|
|Jens Voigt:||Yes, 6 kids. There’s only one that’s at the university. I don’t drive him anymore.|
|Bob Babbitt:||I hear that in the family pecking order, you’re one step above the dog?|
|Jens Voigt:||Yeah, I’m still battling it out with Linda, our chocolate brown lab. Sometimes I believe she thinks she is above me in the pecking order. I have managed to keep her just underneath my level.|
|Bob Babbitt:||What I love, Jens, is that early on, you realized that you’re a guy who attacks. It was just your nature. A lot of people sit back and wait for things to happen as an athlete. When did you realize that your style was just to go rather than to sit in and wait to see what happens?|
|Jens Voigt:||You’ve got to have this moment where you’re honest with yourself. I’m not a top class sprinter. I’m not a top class climber. I’m not the world’s best at the time trial. All I had was a big engine and the desire to win. I could suffer for a long time. Really, I would love to be a sprinter. You bike all day long, you race for 200 meters, reach your arms up in the air, you get the girls, you get the glory, you get the fame. That’s not given to me. I had to go the long way in order to make it happen. The only chance for me to win was breakaways.
|Bob Babbitt:||You knew that you had to make people suffer?|
|Jens Voigt:||Yes, very early it occurred to me that the harder the race gets, the more sticky and uncomfortable it is, the better it is for me and the higher the chances that I actually can succeed in the end. There are not many easy wins in my life.|
|Bob Babbitt:||What I love too, is if you enter the room, if it’s silent, you’re the guy who breaks the silence. You chat up the person next to you. You like to make things happen.|
|Jens Voigt:||That’s so true. I hate silence. I hate this awful silence when nobody wants to talk. I like to crack a joke, make fun of myself and break the ice. People go, “Oh, look at him. He’s human. He’s normal. We can talk to him.”|
I’m a social type. I really love talking and interacting with people. That was obviously one of the favorite parts of my job that I could interact with my fans and my followers. I always loved to chat them up and to spend time with them.
|Bob Babbitt:||I get with social media and everything that’s happened, that’s actually been a good thing for you over the years. You can interact more with your fans.|
|Jens Voigt:||Totally. Especially Twitter. It’s a really direct way of communicating with your fans. Nobody can twist your words. You can say exactly what you want and the way you want it. That was obviously a good thing to keep in contact with the fans, but it also has its downside.|
|Our dog, Linda, she’s a chocolate brown lab, right? For many years I wrote, “Hey, its Linda time.” I mean time to walk the dog. For many years, people thought Linda time meant me and my wife having a romantic moment. Every time I write, “It’s Linda time,” people thought something completely different. It took me two years to find out that people had a misunderstanding there.
|Bob Babbitt:||Your wife is going, “Wait, who’s Linda?”|
|Jens Voigt:||Exactly. “Who’s Linda? Is that your American lover or your British lover?” No, no that’s our dog.|
|Bob Babbitt:||You grew up in East Germany. When did you realize that you could be a top athlete?|
|Jens Voigt:||Fairly early. I started cycling and playing sports in general because I was a trouble maker. I had way too much energy. One day the teachers came to my parents and went, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Voigt, your son has too much energy. He causes trouble. He needs to do sports to burn off his energy.” I started cycling. I trained for about 3 weeks, entered my first race and won it. I realized I must have a little bit of talent to win my first race.
In my early years, I won a lot. When I was 14 to 16 to 17, my body developed. My body needed to grow some muscles. I didn’t win as much, but when the Berlin Wall came down, I became part of the German National Team. I realized, “The wall came down. I’m a good amateur, so I can look into actually becoming a professional bike rider and one day participating in the Tour de France.”
|Bob Babbitt:||In the meantime, you were part of a team that helped Jan Ulrich get the Gold Medal in the 2000 Olympics.|
|Jens Voigt:||Yes. Absolutely.|
|Bob Babbitt:||What was that Olympic experience like for you?|
|Jens Voigt:||I believe I was lucky that I could be in the Sydney Olympics. I did Sydney, I did Athens and Beijing. Sydney by far was the best Olympics. You could see the whole country of Australia behind it, the whole crowd wanted to be part of it and make it a unique experience for everyone who traveled there from all over the world. It was great. To see all these young, strong, healthy, talented athletes together, it was pretty amazing I have to say.
After spending 2 weeks in the Olympic Village doing your race, you go home. Everyone is young, healthy and strong and you’re all between 22 and 30 years old. Then you return home and see all the normal humans. You go, “Wow, that is so different.” It’s an unreal world. Everybody in the whole Olympic village was a national champion or some sort of superstar. Everybody was fit, strong, full of hope and confident. It was just different in that Olympic village.
|Bob Babbitt:||When you come out of the German system, I’m guessing you’re told where to go and what to do. Becoming an international sports athlete, joining a cycling team and traveling the world, was that hard for you? Or, because of your personality, did you adapt fairly quickly?|
|Jens Voigt:||It definitely helped that we had to learn English in the East German schools. I had a little bit of English knowledge to start off with. I did spend 2 or 3 years with the German national team. That helped me to grow a little bit. We had some training camps in Colorado Springs and another camp in Mexico. For high altitude training we had camps in Italy. I was aware that the world is a far bigger place than you think when you live in East Germany. I was a little bit prepared for it. Once I signed up with my first professional team in ’97, it was a small team. Half of the team was Australian since we had an Australian sponsor. I was such an innocent child before I met the Australians, my friend. Oh my God! They show you things that no human eye has ever seen before. Don’t ask for any more details. It was eye opening, it was great…but it was far out there!|
|Bob Babbitt:||The 2006 Tour de France, stage 13. A 231 kilometer stage and you’re in a 5 man breakaway. That’s a long, long stage, but I’m guessing that works well for someone like yourself.|
|Jens Voigt:||Yes. I remember the group the 4 guys, they were almost gone. I just jumped across at the very last moment. I was just dead set when I reached them. I said, “Boy, I can push for the next 2 or 3 miles, I just need to breathe a little bit.” I didn’t feel that I was the strongest in the group, but after 100 kilometers I said, “I’m feeling better.” After 100 miles I said, “Yes, I can see it coming around.” In the end, I was one of the strongest ones, but maybe I just wanted it more than the others. I was more desperate, more determined to use this chance and not let it slip away and get that stage win.|
|Bob Babbitt:||You get that stage win by outsprinting Oscar Pereiro. That was your second stage win. What does it mean to win a stage at Tour de France or to be in the yellow jersey?|
|Jens Voigt:||In cycling, you can be a very good bike rider, but you’re not really fully accomplished yet if you haven’t won a stage at the Tour de France.
If I show up at a bike race 50 years from now, you’re never ever going to see someone introduced as the 3 time winner of some small race that nobody knows or cares about. But when they say here comes Jens Voigt who won a yellow jersey or a stage in the Tour de France, everybody knows that. It’s a special title that stays with you for a lifetime. It gives you a lot more respect from your colleagues because everybody knows that winning a stage in the Tour de France is not easy, that there are no lucky wins. You’ve got to work hard and you’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to wait. Some super talented cyclists win in their first year, but for a normal bike racer, you have to wait 2, 3, 4, maybe 5 years to actually get that first stage win. That’s super important to every bike rider.
|Bob Babbitt:||One of the things that’s touched a nerve for your American fans especially, is the fact that, when things happen, you just react. At the 2010 Tour de France during stage 16, you crash in descent. Your bike’s destroyed. Most people would go, “I’m out of the race. I’ve had a bad crash.” Your team car is gone and you’ve got no bike. You grab a kids’ bike?|
|Jens Voigt:||That is correct. The doctor stitched me up and put me back together so I would be able to race. Believe it or not, every 5 minutes, the doctor came to me and showed me the fingers of his hand, “Hey Mr. Voigt. How many fingers? Are you still here? Are you still with us?”|
|I’m like, “I’m okay. I’m just really badly bruised, but I’m okay.” By the time they stopped the bleeding and all that, when I walked across the street to the ambulance, I swear, lightning should hit me if I exaggerate. I had so much blood spilling out of my elbow, running down my arm and dripping off my fingertips onto the road as I walked across the road that I left a trail of blood stains behind me, like a stupid B class horror movie. It was unreal. I really did bleed a lot that day.|
|The doctor stopped the bleeding. The only thing left was the so called Broom Wagon, the car that collects all the riders that have abandoned. I said, “There’s no way I’m going into that car.” That car had a kids’ bike on the roof. I said, “Okay, if there’s nothing else there, I’ll take the kids’ bike.”|
|It had limited gears, it had a different pedal system than I was used to so my shoes wouldn’t fit into the pedals, but it was better than nothing. So I rode about 15-20 miles on it|
|Bob Babbitt:||Oh my God, 15-20 miles?|
|Jens Voigt:||Yeah, before I finally got my own proper spare bike from my own team. They finally realized that Jens not only needs a wheel change, he needs a complete bike. They dropped a spare bike off with the policeman on the side of the road and said, “Dear Mr. Policeman, you look trustworthy. Please hang onto this bike until my biker rider comes to this point, then you give him this bike please.”|
|Bob Babbitt:||Your real strength was helping out the other guys. You were so good with the Schleck brothers. Was that something you really appreciated, the fact that Andy and Frank got on the podium and that probably wouldn’t have happened without your hard work? It’s hard not to be the star, to be the guy who helps the other guys become stars.|
|Jens Voigt:||I must say, throughout most of my career, I had enough races where I could test myself and the team would support me. There was no jealousy. Everybody had his moment in the spotlight. I realized the Schleck brothers are just better than me. I could never win the Tour de France. They could. Yes, it’s really, really rewarding. When people ask me about my best race, I always say, “Helping Bobby Julich in 2005 at Paris-Nice.” I was the last man standing. Bobby Julich was in the leader’s jersey and it was me and 30 other guys who wanted that jersey and no other teammates around. I knew it was all up to me. I’m the last line of defense here and I took the challenge. I chased everybody down and I protected Bobby’s jersey. He kept the yellow jersey. On the podium, I ended up next to him. I could see his wife and his daughter in tears being so proud of their dad and their husband.
I thought to myself, “See, a little bit of his victory is thanks to me.” That was, to me, the most rewarding day on my bike.
|Bob Babbitt:||I’m betting that someone like Bobby was very appreciative and knew how hard you worked.|
|Jens Voigt:||Yes, yes, yes. Already, that night. We have the tradition that Bobby, he lives in Nice during the summer months. Every year I would stay the day after Paris-Nice and Bobby and I would go out for Mexican food. Bobby would say, “I don’t even know how to thank you because you just saved the day for me.”
I said, “Bobby, you helped me so many times to achieve my goals. I can at least have one day to really help you out.”
Since we’ve always been friends, there was never an issue.
|Bob Babbitt:||One of the other favorite stages for me when I look at your career, was the US Pro Cycling Challenge. It was the 4th stage in 2012 and you attacked on Independence Pass and soloed over 60 miles?|
|Jens Voigt:||Yeah, I think about 140 kilometers, about 60 maybe 70 miles.
I remember the team director, who happened to be younger than me. He ended his racing career earlier than me and he became the team director. He came up to me and I could see the doubt written all over his face, “It’s a long way. Are you sure about this?”
Yes, that’s the plan. Nobody expects me to go out at 60 miles solo. People think, “He’s going to die out there. It’s way too long. He’s old. He’s done.”
They underestimated me. I ended up winning the day. Afterwards the director told me, “Okay, you’re the man. I’ll never doubt your decisions anymore. Whenever you go, I’ll follow you.”
|Bob Babbitt:||It seems you love the surprise, the fact that you’ll go when no one else will. Attacking on Independence Pass is probably something most people wouldn’t think about.|
|Jens Voigt:||No, no. I don’t think anybody would have bet a penny on me that that was going to work. But that was my chance, to be unpredictable. Everybody knows you want to attack in the last kilometer, but then everybody’s ready for it. Who’s going to be ready when you attack with 60 miles to go? You surprise everybody with that. Once you have the advantage and momentum on your side, you act, the others have to react to your plan. That already gives you a huge mental advantage because you are in control of the situation. The others now have to live with the situation you created. They’re on the defense. I’ve always created more energy when I was on the offense, when I felt, “Okay, I’m in control. I’m the boss of this.” That always helped me mentally to suffer through those long days.|
|Bob Babbitt:||At the age of 41, you attack during the next to the last stage of the 2013 Tour de France. Was there ever a point where you didn’t feel like attacking, where you just felt like being a part of the group?|
|Jens Voigt:||Being a part of the group means you give yourself up. If you’re part of the group it means you are just waiting to get slaughtered at some point later in the race.|
|Bob Babbitt:||Good point.|
|Jens Voigt:||-or you’re setting yourself up to be made fun of by the sprinters. Being in the pack, if you’re not on a training day or on a recovery day, means you’re not going anywhere. I always had way higher expectations of myself. I put way too much pressure on myself. I also had too much confidence to be just someone in the pack. That never satisfied me. I always wanted to be a force to be reckoned with. Nothing made me more proud than after a race – or during a race – having people come to me and say, “Jens, today in our team meeting on the bus, we talked about this and this and this. One thing we talked about was whatever happens in the race, never ever let Jens Voigt get 10 seconds on you.”
That made me proud. That meant they took me seriously. I’m still part of the race. If you don’t get mentioned in any team meetings, that means that they don’t think of you as a serious contender. I never liked that. I always wanted to be fully operational until the last day I’m on the bike. I also always wanted to be a force to be reckoned with.
|Bob Babbitt:||In 2014 when you went to the starting line for the 17th line on the Tour de France, what did that mean to you? What did that say to the cycling world about you?|
|Jens Voigt:||To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t have known that fact if the media hadn’t kept telling me or asking me how I felt about the record. I would rather have the record for stage wins, the record for yellow jerseys, or the record for the most money ever earned. A record for participation is not that big a deal to me. It’s a sign that your team obviously appreciated your work, that your team thought that you are a worthy team member that you could help your team to become better. But a record for participation is like getting 4th place in a race. It’s awesome, you almost had a podium, but no, it’s not worth anything really. That’s how I feel about that record. I don’t know. It’s nothing too big for me I have to say.|
|Bob Babbitt:||When people think of Jens Voigt, the first thing they think of is you telling your legs to shut up. “Shut up, legs.” To me, that sums you up because obviously you’re suffering. If you’re looking around you and guys are climbing, everyone in the peloton is suffering. It’s how you deal with it that makes the difference.
When did that come about? Is that something you used to basically tell your body to shut up so you can handle the pain?
|Jens Voigt:||I believe it must have been in an interview with Danish TV in about 2006. The reporter asked me what I do if I’m in a breakaway, if I feel I can’t do it anymore, but the team asks me to go one more time. I said, “Shut up legs, do what I tell you.” The mind has control of body, not the other way around.|
|The fans cut everything out except the shut up legs to make it short. That’s me now. That’s my catch phrase. It did work. You cannot use it on a daily basis. You have to save it for special moments.|
|It did work for many years.|
|Bob Babbitt:||Eventually your legs are like, “You know what, Jens, listen to us. It’s time to hang it up.”|
|Jens Voigt:||Exactly. I said that in the last year already, in the winter months during training. I had a little conference call with my body, my legs, my mind, my motivation and myself. We sat there at the table and we said, “How are we going to do this? We cannot give up in January because we just signed a contract for one year.” My legs, my body, my mind, my motivation, myself, we all agreed, “Let’s keep it together. We can keep it together for one more year, but after that you’re going to fall apart.”|
|That’s where I am now. My body’s falling apart. No more shut up legs for me.|
|Bob Babbitt:||You are a father of 6. Did your kids get into cycling? What are their sports?|
|Jens Voigt:||All sorts of sports. The oldest one did basketball for a while, then he switched to lacrosse. He still plays lacrosse. The second son, Julian, he was the cyclist for 4 years, but recently he stopped. He went, “Dad, waking up on a Sunday at 6, driving to the race at 7, then spending all day long in some forest around Berlin, finishing my race, waiting for the other team members, then driving home, I get home at 6 pm and the whole day is killed. I don’t want it anymore.” He’s 16 now. He just didn’t want to be away so much. I believe that he probably discovered girls. Of course, spending the whole weekend on a cycling trip is not what you want at that age.|
|Bob Babbitt:||When you look back at your career, what are your favorite moments? Obviously we have ours, those are the ones we’ve seen on television. Sometimes athletes have moments that mean more to them than what the public sees.|
|Jens Voigt:||Winning the Tour of Germany in front of my home crowd was amazing. People thought I couldn’t win that race. They said ‘he’s not going to make it. He’s going to get beaten.’ I managed to win it. That was a really good moment. l also like my win in 2003 at a smaller one day race in France. It was clear that I was going to leave the team. There was a little friction between my team and me. Both sides were a little unhappy how it all went down. I just stopped training, ate burgers and had beers. I didn’t train the day before the race. I sat at a coffee shop for an hour pretending that I was training, rode back to the team and said, “yeah I trained for one hour.”|
|The next morning, we had 8 guys in the team. 7 guys said, “I’m good. I want to win. I want to be the leader.” I was the only one who said, “No. I’m shit. Let’s be honest. I’m shit. I don’t have the legs. I don’t have the head. I’ll lead you guys as far as I can, and then maybe I’ll stop.” Turns out that I got out in the front group, felt better during the race and won the race. All the other 7 wannabe leaders abandoned. None of them finished the race.
As I walked back with the flowers from the awards ceremony, they all came out of the showers. None of them dared to say a word to me. That was a very cool moment.
|Bob Babbitt:||Talk a little bit about setting the hour record at the age of 43 going 51.1 kilometers. Is that something you had thought about for a while?|
|Jens Voigt:|| I wanted to finish my career with a bang. I wanted to go out with something special so that the fans would go,
|I always liked the hour record because it’s basically the ultimate hour of truth. There are no teammates and there are no excuses. There’s only you, the bike, the bike track and how much pain you can bear. Nothing else. That’s it. It’s fairly simple. You try to cover as much distance as you can in one hour on the bike. There’s no hiding. If you win it, you’re great, you’re smart, you have all the glory. If you don’t make it, there’s nothing you can hide behind. You failed. Period. Nothing else. There are no teammates, there’s no team director, there’s nothing technical that could go wrong. You either have it, or you don’t. I always liked that simplicity. It’s just you and the bike. Nothing else. I was always intrigued by it.
It was a great way to finish my career, to show the people I am fully operational until my last day on the bike.
|Bob Babbitt:||Fully operational? Your average power was 412 watts. That’s way beyond fully operational. As you were winding down, knowing this was going to be your last day racing on a bike, the last 10 minutes, the last 15 minutes, did you think about your career and have flashbacks to some of your greatest moments? Or were you just totally focused on that moment?|
|Jens Voigt:||Since the hour record tends to get harder and harder and harder towards the end, I didn’t have too much time to reflect on my career. During my last Tour de France, we did a lap of honor. That’s when I realized, that’s it. That’s the last time I’m going to perform in front of a million people live.|
|Cycling has been good to me. Maybe I’ve had some bad crashes, but cycling has been good to me. It was a large part of my life. To stop, it was a big decision. Yes, I was happy to have that hour record, but sad that it was all over. I had a full range of emotions going on, plus my family was there, my parents, some friends. It was a special evening there in Switzerland when I set the hour record. I wasn’t completely smiling and happy. I wasn’t sad either, just a little bit of everything. Every 5 minutes a new emotion.|
|Bob Babbitt:||When the Tour de France rolled out in 2015, how hard was it for you not to be at the start?|
|Jens Voigt:||Surprisingly, not hard at all. I’m in a lucky position. I left it all out there. I squeezed everything out of my body, physically and mentally. Only now that I am on the outside as a commentator, I realize what a hard, spectacular, beautiful, cruel, brutal, fascinating sport it is.|
|I looked at some of the faces when the riders crossed the line. I thought, “Holy moly, how did I do that for 17 years?” I was impressed with the riders. I felt so sorry when people crashed or didn’t do well. I felt so sorry for the boys. I almost felt like a dad watching your children racing. I was impressed at how hard and how spectacular this sport is. I never realized that when I was inside. Only now I realize how bloody hard the Tour de France is.|
|Bob Babbitt:||Cycling has been the one sport that has been in the cross hairs with everything that’s happened with doping. As a guy who loves the sport and was involved with it for so long, how hard was it for you to focus on what you needed to do and not get involved with any of that?|
|Jens Voigt:||I had a good career and a long career. I never wanted to poison my mind or poison my soul with what could have happened.
I could name 4, 5, 6, 7 races where I finished second or third to people who one day were caught using drugs. Those would have been my wins. I had about 65 official race wins. That’s good. That’s a good career. I don’t want to look back at it, but yes it is hard.
Sometimes you just … What’s a proper word … sometimes you’re guilty because you’re in the same sport.
|Bob Babbitt:||Guilt by association.|
|Jens Voigt:||Right, that’s the word guilt by association. I did get that a lot of times.
“Come on, you raced in that era. You must have done this, and this, and that.” What can you say? The people who lie say the same thing as the people who say the truth. They say, “No I didn’t.” It’s hard. What else can you do to convince people? I realized at one point that I can convince the people who want to believe me or the ones that have an open mind who will listen to me. The haters or the jealous people, I cannot help them. There’s no way I can convince them.
We have had drug testing going on forever. They keep the old samples. Re open them. Yes, feel free, open my tests from 10 years ago, from 8 years ago, from whenever. No problem at all.
|Bob Babbitt:||Has the drug issue been tough to deal with as a family man with six kids. You are a big name in a very high profile sport.|
|Jens Voigt:||I think it was June of 2006. I’m at some race and it’s all over the news in Germany how many bike riders are involved and all of that. My wife drives the children to school. The director of the school goes, “Mrs. Voigt, please tell me your husband is not involved.”
That hurt me the most, when my children, my wife, my family has to suffer from the action of some people. That is just too much. That’s just not right, that’s just not correct.
There were some hard times. Even now that I’m retired, people say, “Come on. You are retired. You can tell us.”
It’s sometimes really frustrating.
|Bob Babbitt:||As you aged as a cyclist, how did you have to change your training? Talking to triathletes and runners as they age, they all say, “I can’t do the same type of training I did when I was younger, I just need to take more days off in between those hard days.”
Did you have to change your training a lot as you approached 40?
|Jens Voigt:||Yes. You have to pay more attention to the small details. Your food, your rest, stretching, your core muscle training. Everything has to be pretty much perfect. I was lucky. I think my body is built in a pretty good way, pretty indestructible practically. Until the age of 40, I felt I was getting better every year. When I was about 39 or 40, I realized, “From now on, it’s a success if I can stay at this level. I’m not going to improve anymore. If I stay at this level, it’s a success. If my level or my physical strength drops, that’s the way nature goes. Hard work is the key.
I realized I had to train shorter, but harder. I had a big, huge diesel engine. I could go forever, but the short punchy power, that’s what I lost first. The high and hard race pace, accelerating out of a corner or quick accelerations. That’s what I missed the most when I was getting older.