Lessons from the Biggest Badass Since Chuck Norris

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

With pure grit and determination, the way a dog protects his owner, Jens Voigt watches over his teammates. The 40-year-old German cyclist races for RadioShack-Nissan-Trek, arguably one of the most formidable UCI pro teams on the map this year with all-stars Andy and Fränk Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, and Chris Horner on the roster. His job as support rider (or “domestique” in the cycling world) means sacrificing his race performance for teammates by bringing them water, giving up his bike if someone crashes, and chasing down breakaway riders.

The legends of Voigt now rival those of another beloved hero of pain, Chuck Norris. (Just check out musclemorphosis.com: “There is no such thing as a draft, just wind trying to get the hell away from Jens Voigt.”)

The mobile apps, fan sites,  and What Would Jens Voigt Do? T-shirts are fueled by moments like one from the 2010 Tour de France when Voigt’s front tire blew out and he crashed traveling 40 miles per hour down a mountain in the Pryenees. His bike shattered, his ribs busted, and he had a geyser spewing from his left elbow. So he borrowed a kid’s bike with toe-clip pedals and rode it the 20 kilometers until he got his spare bike from the team car.

To be fair, Voigt has also had his share of cycling success: He's won his share of stages in the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, and taken first in everything from the Paris-Bourges to Grand Prix des Nations.

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This year will be Voigt’s 16th season of professional riding. He guesses it could be his last. But he said that last year, too, when he was the oldest guy in the Tour de France. His goal remains the same: get one of the team’s riders to Paris in a yellow jersey.

We caught up with him on the first UCI WorldTour of the season, the musclemorphosis.com in South Australia, last week.

Men’s Health: You’re one of the toughest riders out there. How are you passing on your wisdom to the younger guys on the team?
Jens Voigt: It’s about determination. These days, everybody trains hard and smart. Everybody has a decent technique or tactic. Everybody has a good bike—there are no shit bikes in this sport anymore, you know? You’ve got to look somewhere else to make a difference. Tour de France winners used to win by 15 minutes. Today, 15 minutes out, you’re in 35th. So the one with the highest pain threshold takes it. If you can suffer a little bit more, go out hard one more time, it intimidates the other riders, even if you’re only slightly better than them. That one more push could crack your opponents and you’re out front while everyone else in the back arguing who’s going to chase you. Let them play the poker game. Up front, it’s all or nothing. I try to tell the guys that. And I have enough experience to prove it.

Men's Health: What’s it like giving up the spotlight to help bring up the next generation?
Jens Voigt: I hate to admit it, but I’m an older rider. I don’t like that fact. But I think a career should be a circle, equal between taking and giving. You come in young,  let people help you, support you. Then you come to the higher part of circle, and it’s “I want to win, I want to win” and you use all of the resources to make it happen. When you close the circle, it’s your time to give back and keep the balance. I have experience I’ve paid for with blood, sweat, and tears. It would be just stupid not to pass it on and keep it for myself. I help younger kids by guiding them a bit, and physically, I try to help the boys on top.

Men's Health: Is being a support rider easier?
Jens Voigt: Not at all. If you’re the lead cyclist, you know what you have to do and you know your adversity.  If you’re supporting somebody, you do the best you can and then let them go. Then there’s 10, 20, 30 km left and you’re holding a steady speed, and don’t know what to do. You just keep riding with your fingers crossed, hoping everything works out, because you can’t influence it. You have no idea what happened until you cross the line and find someone to tell you. So it’s difficult in a different way. It’s mentally exhausting.

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Men's Health: Why keep pushing as hard as you do?
Jens Voigt: I’m married with six children, does that answer my question? I want to run! I’m kidding. Obviously, this sport is a very hard sport. If you only do it for the money you’re not going to last very long. It’s too hard to be a mercenary. You have to have passion inside of you. Passion in me feels like a high, full burning flame—it’s not a tiny spark in the dark. It’s still burning and I still love it. I’m not winning races like when I was on top, but I believe I’m still able to do my job, be among the best and be a valuable teammate. Every year you get a contract, you know that people still think you’re worth it. And it’s cool to hang out with all of your boys, get a shiny new bike every year and all of this equipment. You get paid to stay healthy and fit. When I’m riding a quiet little country road, I heard birds tweeting and think, I’m in my office now. How cool is that?

Men's Health: Will you be riding in the Tour de France this year?
Jens Voigt: We have a strong team and it’s not a given that I go to the tour. I had a rider’s meeting with the directors and I told them hey, you guys can laugh at me, and I know I’m 40, but I’m not giving up my spot on the tour team. You’ve got to pick someone better, not younger. Find someone more qualified, then take him, but I’m not giving up my spot for free. You have to face it one day you’re not a machine or robot. Your body slows down at a certain point. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened yet to me, but I plan on being ready for that moment. To start off the year, they name 14 people for the first cut, then only pick the 9 from the group for the tour. I made the first cut, so I’m in there. Now it’s up to me and up to others to be strong or not.

Men's Health: Have your kids taken up cycling?
Jens Voigt: My 12-year-old son picked it up last year. I have to say he looks good on a bike—well-balanced, smooth pedal stroke—he has a certain ability. My wife has waited for me to come home in one piece after rides for 15 to 20 years now. She was looking at one more year of having to worry and now she’s back at the start line with my son. I give him short, positive comments and let him do what he wants. I don’t want to be one of those parents who yells at their kid. At the end of the year, there was a little series of four races, a Berlin off-road series. He won this first race, took 3rd and 4th in the next two, and in the last, won again and had enough points to win overall. That last race was as exciting as that stupid cart and horse race in Ben Hurr. That’s how I felt watching it.

Men's Health: Why are you so popular?
Jens Voigt: Maybe it’s my funny accent or my one-liners like, “Shut up, legs!”, but I can only guess. Maybe it’s because I’m the anti-star. I’m not flashy. I don’t have a diamond earring or drive a Ferrari or have a blonde, hot-looking girlfriend every second week. I’m just me. I’m an outspoken and open person who says funny things, but also, I hope, some smart things, too. But when the things get tough in a race, I’m there. I’m that rock in the sea, where waves crash for ages and ages, and I’m still there. I think people like that reliability and loyalty. That I ride my bike a lot harder than other people does not necessarily mean I’m a more valuable or precious person, you know?

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