Professional cycling loses its most charismatic competitor on Sunday, when Jens Voigt hangs his wheels up for the last time at the conclusion of the USA Pro Challenge in Denver. The affable German confirmed earlier in the week that he was indeed retiring, and that the seven-day stage race through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado would be his last.
With a record 17 Tour de France starts under his belt, including two stage wins, Voigt is known for his aggressive riding style that includes gutsy moves — like at the 2012 Pro Challenge when he attacked early on the 12,095-foot Independence Pass outside of Aspen, and then hammered 62 solo miles for a stage win. Similar to his runaway-train riding style, Voigt's communication style is also the stuff of cycling lore. Widely regarded as bike racing's most quotable rider, he utters pithy phrases and outrageous musings the way some cyclists gush sweat. His most notable meme: “Shut up, legs!”
At Stage 4 of the USA Pro Challenge, Voigt spoke with Men's Journal about his last race, and aging gracefully in the spotlight of professional of cycling.
You're in the middle of racing the seven-stage USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. Have you had to tell your legs to shut up yet?
Yes, on several occasions. As much as I hate to admit it, I am getting older and the use of that phrase is expanding. It's not only shut up legs, it's shut up body, and shut up lungs. I'm trying my best not to fall apart now, but to wait three to four days after the race is over so I finish my career in a respectable manner.
You're a month shy of your 43rd birthday (and admittedly getting older). What's it like racing professionally in your forties?
When you're the oldest rider at the Tour de France, you really feel it. I have been the oldest rider in the peloton for three years now. But I have to say that in my sport — at least now — the teams take good care of their riders, or their investments so to speak. It's not like they drain every bit of energy from you and burn you out. They want you to last, so careers can last longer now. And cycling is an endurance sport. You lose your fast-twitch ability as you age, but your endurance peaks when you hit 30. I don't think I really started feeling my age until around 40.
What's been the impact of age on your mental game?
I think we all want to successfully push back the aging process, to deny the aging process. Who among us says, yippee I'm getting older? In my head are the questions: Do I still have it? Am I still strong enough? Am I still good enough? Do I still have what it takes to be in this sport? I think answering yes to those questions was a big part of my motivation to keep racing for so long. Nobody wants to look at a reality that says I'm getting slower and weaker and fatter.
Why stop now?
In the last few years, I've felt my body starting to slow down. I didn't want to keep going until somebody said, look we really like you but we don't have space for you on the team anymore. I wanted to finish in a more positive way — to stop while I'm still good and able to provide some entertainment in my final race.
On Sunday, you'll officially end your 18-year professional cycling career. What happens after that?
I'm going to stay away from my bike. I don't think I'm going to touch it until at least Christmas. Maybe then I'll consider fitness again and getting back into sports. I want to spend time with my family. We just got a new puppy who will need some education and training. And I plan do more fishing. And eat more BBQ, more unhealthy food in general, and less salad, and less vitamins. Honestly, I love to eat and I'm really looking forward to having some eisbein in Germany. It's the leg of the pig and so good with so much fat around it that I only allowed myself to eat it once a year as a treat after the season. It's the kind of thing you dream about. Now, I think I will eat it once a quarter.
What's your perspective on retirement?
Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened. I had a great career. I have no reason to complain. It's the way it goes in nature. You slow down. And I believe I lasted a lot longer than a lot of people.
Can you summarize the impact cycling has had on your life?
For me, cycling provides the ability to develop my personality — to meet and see different cultures, countries, continents. I've used my bike on all the continents in the world, except Antarctica of course. I saw the most bizarre things, beautiful things. I met great people. I met people who believe in Buddha, in Allah. I met Christians. I don't have a god, but you realize we all want peaceful lives, to be happy, to raise our children. The sport of cycling enabled me to go and see the world, and to widen my horizons, and I'm really grateful for that. And as a bonus, I was able to feed my family.
What's the state of professional cycling today?
We had some troubled times a few years ago. But now I've seen this great new talent coming up — riders like Tejay [van Garderen], who will most likely win this race. I feel that cycling is in a healthy state again, and that there are really competent people, and so I feel comfortable passing the torch. It's like your children have grown up well and now you can sit back and relax. Cycling is a great place again. They don't even need me anymore.
You've been called many things in cycling: an entertainer, a madman, a true cycling original, a beautiful sufferer. And you've called cycling your release. Had you not been a professional cyclist, what might you have ended up doing instead?
I've thought about this. In cycling, I get paid to release my demons on others. I get paid to cause pain to others. It's a good job. What am I going to do without it? What am I going to do with this energy when I stop? I really don't know. When I was a kid, I liked nature. I wanted to be a forest ranger. Or maybe I'd make animal movies for the Discovery Channel, about lions and sharks and elephants. And dolphins. I really like dolphins — they're aggressive, but beautiful.