Jens Voigt said the pain kept him young. But not even the legendary hard-man of pro cycling could suffer enough to ward off the effects of time.
Less than a month before his 43rd birthday – a milestone by which most cyclists have long since retired and gained weight – the hugely popular rider is finally calling it quits with a U.S. stage race that ends on Sunday.
The decision was expected but still had the power to sadden his legions of fans. No longer will races be enlivened by the German's self-punishing aggression and willingness to ride himself into the ground. Never again will spectators hear him bark "shut up, legs!" – which became his catch-phrase and the name of several cycling clubs.
"My body and my head go, 'listen, this is the last, we give you everything we have, you've squeezed everything out of us and we can't do it anymore,'" Voigt said in an interview.
Aging amateur cyclists everywhere are losing a source of inspiration. Fans who romanticize pros able to ride through the pain are losing one of the toughest of recent years. And top-level sport is losing a rare class act.
As the sport reeled through years of drug scandals – Voigt never tested positive and insists he "did not ever" dope – he was a journeyman whose grit made him a star. Neither a sprinter nor a top mountain climber, he specialized in launching long attacks, often riding solo for hours while the pack chased after him. He would almost always be caught before the finish line, but he rode with the sort of panache and self-sacrifice that fans loved.
"I think they'd rather see me dying in a beautiful way in a breakaway than hanging on and being clever and super-smart and beat someone in the last 50 metres," Voigt said. "No, you would rather see me go out there for 50 kilometres or 100 kilometres and get caught in the last mile and you go, 'man, he put everything on the line.' "
Fans traded stories about his exploits on the road, each more unbelievable than the last.
There was the time he crashed hard, passing out for several minutes and suffering a concussion and broken cheekbone. He called it "very lucky not getting severely hurt." Or the time he raced about 20 kilometres on a youth's bike after wrecking his own in another bad crash. "I was suffering and bleeding, but optimistic about my chances of finishing the Tour [de France]," was how he characterized it. "There were only four stages left, and dropping out would have killed me."
In a lengthy phone interview from Colorado on the eve of Voigt's last race, the seven-day USA Pro Challenge, he described his determination to leave everything on the road. The Trek Factory Racing rider spoke about his deep appreciation of the fans and revealed his belief that some younger riders don't have the necessary work ethic. And although he peppered the conversation with the slightly offbeat humour for which he is known, he also admitted his fears about the future.
"I'm happy that the sacrificing, the hard training, the travel, the time being away from the family is going to stop," Voigt said. "So I'm happy, I'm glad about that. But I'm also terrified. Frightened. Because, I mean, in my whole adult life cycling was the most consistent thing I ever did."
Voigt, who is finishing his 18th year as a professional, started riding the Tour de France before Lance Armstrong first pulled on a yellow jersey. This year the father of six competed against some people young enough to be his children. He is the oldest Tour racer since the war. And he was the oldest man in the race's history to wear the King of the Mountains jersey (albeit briefly), as top climber.
Over the years he rode in support of some of the biggest names in cycling, but wasn't a team leader and never had a chance of winning the sport's marquee race. He notched solo victories on only two of the hundreds of Tour de France stages he started. But just as a scoreless soccer match can rivet fans, Voigt's ability and appeal cannot be measured just by how he placed.
His willingness to suffer – a trait many cycling devotees respect more than mere victory – has become legendary.
"He will attack as soon as the flag drops … because he has this enormous appetite to keep on racing," veteran cycling commentator Phil Liggett said in a 2013 phone interview from London. "He never stops racing. And they're the most difficult racers to counter, because they never give up. He doesn't listen to his body."
Canadian national time trial and road race champion Svein Tuft, who wore the leader's jersey for a day at this year's Giro d'Italia, said he had "a huge amount of respect" for the German rider.
"I mean, he just gives everything," the British Columbia native, who rides for the Orica-GreenEdge team, said from his home in Andorra. "A guy like that has so much experience that, for sure, if you're in a breakaway with him you're going to definitely be doing the right thing."
Rolston Miller, who rides with and races at the masters level for the Toronto-area Morning Glory Cycling Club, said watching someone like Voigt "suffer, crack, break and then to do it again the next day all over again" is an inspiration.
"The solo break or the small break, it's … one of the most glorious ways to win a bike race," he said. "It's pretty damn impressive in my mind. You might say maybe we're masochistic for enjoying that, maybe it's some kind of weird form of athletic schadenfreude, the enjoyment of watching others suffer. Like, I feel bad for the guy but I love watching him do it, I love watching him grit his face. And when they do pull it off it's exhilarating, those are some of the best events."
Voigt was determined not to leave the sport "as a washed-up pro" and wanted to race hard until the end. So he kept attacking. In a typical move, he helped form a breakaway group on the second-to-last day of the 2013 Tour de France and then rode away from them with 60 kilometres to go.
Fans knew the move had little hope but still mourned when he was caught barely eight kilometres from that day's mountain-top finish. He ultimately came 32nd on a stage won by rookie Nairo Quintana, a Colombian climbing phenom barely half his age.
"There were moments when I actually thought he could do it," Liggett said. "That was a brilliant day and he was riding almost like I've never seen him before. He rode himself almost to a standstill."
It was days like these that inspired a Chuck Norris-style tribute Twitter account, where wags contribute accolades such as "For breakfast Jens Voigt adds cobblestones to his muesli." Other fan appreciations abound online. In one extreme case, a woman posted an essay called "I Love My Husband, But Jens Voigt May Be The Coolest Man Alive."
Liggett, who as commentator has seen Voigt race for years, said the German helped his popularity with his gutsy attacking and his quickness with a joke. For Voigt, in spite of his aggression on the bike, is affably plain-spoken when off it.
He gives thoughtful answers in interviews, responds on social media to fans seeking advice about training and equipment, and says he once turned back in a race to shame a man who had snatched a water bottle Voigt tried to give to a child. In 2005, he agreed to take a blind fan out for a ride on a racing tandem and then, according to cyclingnews.com, invited the man and his wife home for Christmas cookies.
"What would we be without the fans?" he said rhetorically in our pre-Colorado interview. "They're more important than me, because they make our sport great, they make things happen. We put on the show, but if people don't react to it we are nothing. So, the fans, basically we should roll out the red carpet for them."
Fans have seen older cyclists score strong results in the last few years. Among them, then 41-year-old Chris Horner won the 2013 Vuelta a Espana and 37-year-old Jean-Christophe Péraud came second in this year's Tour de France. According to Voigt, older riders can handle suffering with greater maturity than some of the younger generation.
Determination can take you only so far, though. In recent years, Voigt would wake up hurting and be keen to quit. Then fan support would make him want to keep racing. But he knew he was slowing down and worried about pushing his luck.
"I don't want to have that one year too much where people actually behind my back start smiling at me and pointing fingers at me and go, 'ah, look, that's Jensie, no, he's not good anymore,'" he said.
Voigt, who will continue to work with the team, made clear there will be no comeback.
"I'm going to put a big chain on my bike, lock it away and watch cobwebs grow on it," he said. "I might go on the bike later … but I'm not going to suffer anymore. I'm not going to do five hours. I'm going to do one hour, easy, in the sunshine, riding my bike to the next ice cream shop."