German cyclist Jens Voigt (born 1971) coined the infamous catchphrase “shut up, legs,” which morphed into a battle cry for bikers across the globe. Known for his aggressive attacks and striking one-liners, Voigt became a fan favorite during a cycling career that included a record-tying 17 starts in the Tour de France. Before retiring at age 43, Voigt set a new world hour record, one of the most prestigious records in cycling.
Jens Voigt spent 17 years on the pro circuit and was the first German to don the “king of the mountains” polkadot jersey in the Tour de France. He also had stage wins in the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) and USA Pro Challenge and five overall victories in the Critérium International. During his career, Voigt amassed a large fan base and frequently referred to himself as an “Average Joe.” In trying to describe Voigt's attraction, Chris Case of Velonews put it this way: “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.”
Voigt was born September 17, 1971, in Grevesmühlen, Germany, at a time when that nation was divided into Soviet-controlled and non-communist sectors. Voight spent his childhood in the small village of Dassow, which was part of East Germany and thus under communist rule. His father, Egon, worked in a factory that manufactured farm equipment, and his mother, Edith, was the town photographer. Voigt has two siblings, an older brother, Ronny, and a sister, Cornelia.
Voigt was nearly ten years old the day members of the BSK Traktor Dassow cycling club came to his school to promote their sport. The cycling team offered a slick, new metallic silver Diamant race bike to any student who signed up. Voigt did not hesitate; he wanted the bike. Within a few weeks, he was racing in a state championship uphill time trial, which he won. By the time Voigt was 11, he dominated the other school-aged cyclists in Dassow, and the following year he won about three-quarters of all cycling races he entered.
Voigt found sports school stressful because he had to work hard to keep up. In his 2016 biography, Shut up, Legs!, he complained about the school but said the grueling experience prepared him for the sacrifice and suffering necessary in cycling. “I often think that the sports school was my own school for suffering …,” he wrote. “I had to struggle just to survive, so I think that over all these years, I learned to set my pain threshold higher than other people's …. By just repeating the level of suffering, the body goes, ‘Okay, I know how this feels. Now go farther.” ’
Voigt tore up the amateur cycling circuit in 1994. He won the Peace Race, a circuit ride across the communist Eastern-bloc countries of Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Russia. He also won the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic in Australia. In 1996, Voigt won the Sachsen Tour, a multi-stage race through Saxony, Germany. He yearned to sign with Team Telekom, the only professional German team, but was repeatedly turned down.
In 1997, Voigt signed with ZVVZ-Giant-AIS, a team sponsored by German bike manufacturer Giant, Czech manufacturer ZVVZ, and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). He proved himself early in the season by taking second place in the Tour de Langkawi, a multi-stage race held in Malyasia. He also won the Internationale Niedersachsen-Rundfahrt, a race through Lower Saxony. Unfortunately, ZVVZ-Giant-AIS folded after the season when ZVVZ pulled due to financial problems.
In 1998, Voigt joined Team GAN, which became the Crèdit Agricole cycling team after the French bank took over sponsorship. He moved to Toulouse, France, to train and enjoyed a breakout season. At the Tour of Basque Country held in Northern Spain, Voigt won Stage 5A in what amounted to his team's first victory of the season. He also entered his first Tour de France and became “king of the mountains” after Stage Nine, the first German rider to win that classification. He earned another day in the “king of the mountains” jersey in 2014, and at this time he became the oldest rider to wear the polka dots in the history of the Tour de France.
In 2004, Voigt joined Team CSC-Saxo Bank, a Danish cycling team led by Italian racer Ivan Basso. That year, he placed first overall in the Critèrium International. The following year, Voigt won first overall in the Tour Méditerranéen, a four-day race through Spain, France, and Italy. He also helped pace Basso to a second-place finish in the 2005 Tour de France.
Voigt was not a top sprinter or mountain climber, so he was never in contention to win the Tour de France during the 17 years he raced it. Instead, he was a gritty workhorse who put himself through the grind to help his team leader win. His job was to set tempos, launch attacks, and join breakaways. In 2010, Voigt helped teammate Andy Schleck to a second-place finish in the Tour de France behind Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador. In 2012, Schleck was awarded the 2010 title retroactively, after Contador was stripped of the title for doping violations.
After seven seasons with Team CSC-Saxo Bank, Voigt left to join the Leopard Trek race team. Beginning with Leopard Trek in 2011, he continued racing alongside cycling brothers Andy and Fränk Schleck and his tempo-setting helped them finish in second and third place overall during that year's Tour de France. Andy Schleck placed second, with brother Fränk finishing less than a minute behind him in third.
Although Voigt never won any marquee races like the Tour de France or Giro d'Italia, his career was filled with marquee moments. At the 2006 Tour de France, he joined a five-man breakway during Stage 13, which included five Category-Four climbs. The breakaway group made its attack more than 200 kilometers from the finish. The cyclists in the peloton (main pack) did not chase the breakaway because most breakaways are caught before the finish line. Voigt and the other four in the group remained ahead of the pack, however, and they increased their lead every kilometer. In the end, the breakaway riders finished more than 29 minutes ahead of the peleton. As the riders approached the finish, Voigt outsprinted Spanish cyclist Ôscar Pereiro to take the stage win. Pereiro took the yellow jersey after that stage and went on to win the tour.
In 2009, Voigt crashed at 60 miles per hour on a downhill during the Tour de France. He flipped over the handlebars, skidded across the pavement, and was carted off on a backboard. Although he suffered a fractured cheek and a concussion, he was was back on his bike 12 weeks later, ready for the next race. After dropping out in 2009, Voigt was determined to finish the Tour de France in 2010, despite this major misfortune.
Once again, unfortunately, Voigt crashed on a descent. He was traveling about 40 miles per hour when his tire exploded. The accident totaled his bike, a doctor bandaged Voigt's wounds, and the “broom wagon” came along to pick him up. Voigt refused to abandon the race, but he needed a bike and his team car was far away. The only available bike was a kid-sized cycle with toe-clip pedals that had been used earlier in the day at a youth event held in conjunction with the tour. Voigt took the bike, pulled the seatpost to its maximum position, and took off. The gear ratio was less than helpful, but he raced on. After about 20 kilometers, he received a replacement team bike and was able to finish the stage ahead of the elimination time.
In 2012, Voigt achieved one of his most momentous stage wins at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. In this race, he attacked early and rode more than 100 kilometers on his own, finishing almost three minutes ahead of the group that was chasing him. He explained his pragmatic race strategy to Velonews, putting it this way: “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.”
On September 18, 2014, Voigt broke the world hour record in front of a jam-packed velodrome in Grenchen, Switzerland. The goal of the race is to see how far a rider can go in 60 minutes. It is an all-out effort with no hills, no brakes, and no coasting. Voigt completed 204 laps—or 51.11 kilometers (31.8 miles)—during his hour ride. With this accomplishment, he retired from professional cycling.
Voigt recounted the pain of riding the world hour course in a first-person recap he wrote for Bicycling magazine. “Everything was aching. My neck ached from holding my head low in that aerodynamic position. My elbows hurt from holding my upper body in that position. My lungs hurt after burning and screaming for oxygen for so long. My heart hurt from the constant pounding. My back was on fire, and then there was my butt! I was really and truly in a world of pain.” His record was broken six weeks later by Australian cyclist Matthias Brändle, who covered 51.85 kilometers during his 60-minute race against the clock.
During the 2011 Tour de France, Voigt signed up for a Twitter account (@thejensie) and amassed 10,000 followers during the first hour. The number grew exponentially as race fans signed on, eager to see his wit unfold firsthand. Voigt's signature phrase “shut up, legs” has been painted on bikes, shirts, and mountain race roads to motivate riders. In his autobiography of the same name, Voigt shared other phrases that were fan favorites, such as “Whatever makes the race wet and sticky is good for me” and “If I'm hurting, then the others must be hurting twice as much as I am.”
Among riders, Voigt became known for his eccentricities, among them his love for books. During adolescence, he discovered that reading was a good counterbalance to riding and his favorite authors were James Fenimore Cooper and Jack London. As an adult, Voigt used books as a distraction from the pain and fatigue of racing. Every year, he brought three books with him to the Tour de France—one for each week of the race.
Voigt was also known for his high pain tolerance, which allowed him to push his body. In a column for Bicycling magazine, he wrote that most people quit too soon rather than push too hard. He referred to pain as a training partner and constant companion, writing, “We have this love-hate relationship. We keep watching each other and waiting for the other one to show some weakness, to give in.”
Retiring in 2014 gave Voigt more time to spend with his wife, Stephanie, and their six children. The couple had married in 2003 and their first child, Marc, had been born in 1995, and their youngest, Helen, in 2011. Voigt squeezed more years out of professional cycling than most by riding into his 40s, and he now struggled to adjust. “I wake up some days and say, ‘Oh man, retirement is the best thing ever,’” he told Timothy John for Simpson online. “Other days, it feels like someone has amputated a limb.”
Voigt, Jens, with James D. Startt, Shut up, Legs! My Wild Ride on and off the Bike, Rodale Books, 2016.
Bicycling, August 2011, Jens Voight, “The Making of a Superdomestique,” p. 54; June 2013, Jens Voigt, “My Craziest Day,” p. 48; August 2013, Jens Voigt, “My Favorite Enemy,” pp. 46–47.
Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2014, Jason Gay, “A Final Shut up for Jens Voigt.”