Interview: Jens Voigt on Life After Pro-Cycling

Jens Voigt Australia

Even following his retirement from pro-cycling, Jens Voigt remains one of the worlds’ most popular cycling personalities and his schedule is as full as ever. Jens is in high demand and Christopher Jones from Bicycles Network Australia spoke with him in Sydney in the lead up to The Tour on Stage where he is joined by cycling commentator Phil Liggett and Australian cyclists Rohan Dennis and Simon Gerrans. 

Beginning with The Tour on Stage event, the interview then moves on to life after professional racing. Jens discusses his active role in the cycling world, the effect of retiring from cycling on his body and mind as well and the future of cycling technology and a new era in cycling.

 

Jones – You were in Australia earlier this year for a business leadership series, the Tour de Cure ride and have returned again for The Tour on Stage series which is a new format, can you tell us about this event?

Voigt – It’s also new to me, I did bring a suit so that I’d be dressed properly for the audience. I think it is going to be a good experience, not only for me but for the fans that come because the way we have planned it is that that we want to involve the audience into the Q&A session where they can ask the questions they want to know the answer to.

Hopefully we are going to entertain them and hopefully we are going to make it an event where people go home happy and say “oh yeah, that was nice”, and talk about it so that next year they still remember the night.

With Rohan Dennis and Simon Gerrans we have two absolute legends of Australian cycling there. We cover three generations, with Rohan Dennis the up-and-coming star, Simon being the star right now and me, just retired. So we can talk about the whole thing, how cycling has developed.

With the two Australian riders we can talk about things like ‘how does it feel to live 20,000 miles away from home, to live in a different country where people speak different languages? Do you get homesick sometimes during the season because you miss Australia, you miss your parents?’

We’re not limited to a five minute interview, we have 2 hours so we can cover a lot of subjects and really tell some stories which people can have a good laugh at.

 

Jones – Cycling fans usually interact by riding a bike them self, watching races on television or on location. The Tour on Stage is a different way of bringing cycling to the fans.

Voigt – It’s my first year of retirement so it’s a new experience for me. Who knows? If we do it again next year we could have the people who join the show at night, have a bike ride in the morning. Cyclists like to be active. They like to do stuff involving their bikes so maybe we try that next year. I am convinced it will be a good event.

Phil Ligget is there, how much better can it get?

Jens Voigt Retirement

 

Jones – When we spoke in 2011, you were a senior pro peloton rider and we discussed life after racing. Can you share the activities which you are involved in now.

Voigt – I have a contract with Trek which basically includes working with the Trek Factory Racing but also working with Trek the bike factory testing new prototypes; helping them develop bikes, handlebars, saddles, shoes, clothes and helmets.

And the third thing is that Tania, the wife of the Trek owner [John Burke], owns Trek Travel for bike tours, training camps or trips to the Tour de France. I work with them also so we talk, “Next month we want you there, or there”. It’s going very good.

Plus I have this little range of clothes; shirts and hoodies. This year for Christmas we want to have our first cycling kit on Shutuplegs.com

I’m still working on my book, it’s an English book with an American publisher. Maybe later we get it re-translated back into German.

 

Jones – Will the book be English with a German accent, so that it is pure Jens and retains your character?

Voigt – Since I am writing part of it, yes it is going to be me. Hopefully it captures my personality. They have just accepted our raw version of it. We still need to add a few more words, but not too much. It is going to be ready for next years Tour de France.

We did it together the American journalist and photographer James Startt. He was really fascinated with my upbringing. A large part of it is about my childhood in East Germany. How life was behind the Iron Curtain.

 

Jones – Does life in retirement mean less travel and more time at home?

Voigt – I believe I travel at least as much in my years an an active bike rider. The thing that has changed is that all of my trips this year have been very far. Seven times to the US, this is the third time to Australia, one time to Korea, one time to Thailand. And I don’t even talk about any trips to France or Great Britain because they’re just around the corner so that has changed. As a bike rider you have a lot of races in Europe and at the moment I spend more time outside Europe.

I actually believe my body doesn’t even have a time zone anymore. I just live by the day. I just adapt to the situation.

Now I am here [Sydney], I came in this morning. Before that I had a week at home. Before that, a week in Korea so it’s like [airplane sound effects] flying all over the world.

 

Jones – You are completely booked out, is it all cycling?

Voigt – I try to do some other things, but it still involves the bike or something about cycling. I did the Tour de Cure in April which involves bikes. Bikes are my life, I did nothing but ride my bike for the last 18 years as a pro. For 33 years of my life I was a bike rider. It’s only logical.

I do some keynotes and speeches. I try to be open minded and try different things.

 

Jones – With your pro-cycling experience, you know how racing works. Are you able to share this knowledge with the Trek Factory Racing team and the riders?

Voigt – I passed my license, but realised that I am so busy with other things that I just wouldn’t have time for a job as DS [Directeur Sportif]. If you want to be a DS it doesn’t make sense in my eyes if I do one race in a year. I need to be doing it more often.

As a DS, you have to be able to sit in a car and follow a rider and tell by the pedal stroke how he feels. You see a rider ‘Ah, his left shoulder is hanging down a little bit, I think he’s tired’. If you don’t have that really close touch or allegiance with them, you are losing that eye for the situation. I would not be as good as I could be, as good as I should be if I only come once a year.

We wanted to have a test run with me as a sport director at this years Tour of California but then I got the offer to work with NBC TV and Trek and myself agreed. If you start as a Sport Director, you will be in the second car in the co-driver seat. Maybe after five days they let you drive the second car but you’re never going to be in the first car.

They said, “Do you know what Jens, I think it’s better for all of us and for yourself to build up your own brand, helping Trek Bikes to promote Trek Bikes, better if your still on TV instead of locking you away in the second sport director car in position fifteen.”

Jens Voigt Tour on Stage

 

Jones – You are very comfortable in the spotlight, we have seen you in the Australian coverage of the Tour de France (in your little tiny shack) providing cross-over commentary. You seem to be very confident in this role.

Voigt – I like to talk so that’s always easy. I’m a social person, I like to interact with people. Since I have British, American and Australian teammates, I have enough confidence to say that my English is good enough so that people at least understand what I’m trying to say. I still have the terribly strong accent, but people understand what I am saying so that helps.

Talking about confidence, if you do the Tour de France, you are racing against the best athletes in the world. You have a 20 kilometer uphill ahead of you where you know your going to be reaching 200bmp heart-rate and as soon as you get to the top, you’re going to be doing a downhill for 20km at 80kmh, you’ve got to have a certain confidence to take that challenge.

You know what the NBC (TV) people told me, “we actually brought you onboard to be yourself. You don’t need to change anything. Just be yourself, use your words, use your accent. We bring you onboard to add colour. We have enough proper English speaking commentators with Phil [Ligget], with Paul [Sherwen], with Christian Vande Velde. We just bring you to add more colour and an inside view”.

 

Jones – How much do you ride now?

Jens holds up his hand to show a zero sign.

Voigt – After I stopped my career, I just needed a break. My head just needed a break from it. It is like if you are a journalist for forties years and you retire and your kids go ‘let’s be a journalist’ and you say ‘lets go fishing, lets go hiking’. But I can feel that it is coming back now.

 

Jones – Can you ride for enjoyment?

Voigt – I couldn’t do it at the start because I tend to pedal too fast and push myself. I caught myself going too fast and I go “look Jens, you don’t need to suffer, you don’t need to train, just go easy”. But it’s a new concept to me because I used to ride my bike to get better, or to win, or to beat somebody, or to perform well. And now I don’t need that anymore so it’s a whole new idea. I needed time to get my mind around it plus I was just tired of suffering.

This year in summer I had a run at home and somewhere in the middle of the forest I said “you know what, SCREW THAT, Screw suffering, Screw breathing heavily”. I just stopped running and had a walk and listened to the birds. Once we have time to look at it, you know how beautiful it is to see the patterns of sunlight coming through the leaves. It’s almost like magic, I never saw that before because I was always focussing.

I also do feel the need, my body gives me the signals that it wants to work a little bit and sweat.

 

Jones – Especially when as you get older, our bodies were built for being active and it is very easy to lose fitness.

Voigt – Yes, I can feel that. At the start of this year I am there in the morning brushing my teeth and I look at myself and go ‘Oh, this must be the first time in my grown up life that I have more that 10% body fat’. Two digits. ‘Oh, that is ugly’. I’ve got love handles. I never had that before.

Jens Voigt Christopher Jones

 

Jones – You could be a MAMIL, a Middle Aged Man in Lycra!

Voigt – Yep. I still believe I look like a normal, healthy man but I am far away from what I looked like before. I am never going to be that fit and strong again. That’s the only thing I struggle with in my retirement, that you have to accept that you will never be that strong and healthy and fit again.

I remember after the hour record, ‘big excitement’. ‘awesome’, ‘great event’. You have the ceremony, get the little medal and all of that. I am in my room alone, everybody else is gone, it’s quite. I’m in the shower then I look at myself and go ‘that’s it, you will never look that fit again’. That is so hard to accept that it is basically all downhill from there. It’s so hard to accept, yeah I struggled with it.

It was hard to accept because you have to lower your expectations on yourself.

 

Jones – Let’s switch over to technology. We are in a period of change in the cycling world, we have seen action camera’s on bikes in pro-racing, technology such as power meters are becoming more commonplace and accessible for more riders. Do you have any predictions for the future of bike development and tech?

Voigt – The bikes are very advanced. The UCI has a weight limit. I think there are serious discussions within the UCI to lower that. At the moment it is 6.8 kilos I believe. I think you could easily lower it to 6 kilos or lower it by 500 grams to 6.3 kilos and it’s a perfectly safe, stable, ridable bike.

I remember Julian Arredondo from my team, he’s Columbian and he’s a little short. He had to add weight to his bike to make it UCI legal. Bike companies spend literally hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop lighter and better bikes. And you have to go the other way and make the bike artificially heavier to be legal. That’s something we are going to see in the future, that they are going to lower the weight limit.

Apart from that, the next big innovation or development is probably going to be more wearable equipment. One day soon we are going to have equipment that can measure lactic acid in real time or your V02 or your oxygen uptake.

It can give a live feed to your coach or to your Strava account and share it with everybody. This will also help, I believe, to maintain or gain more credibility. No one needs to hack into Froomes’ SRM data anymore. It’s all out there, online and you can see; ‘in January he pushed this, in May it’s this, in July it’s this’. He is developing, he is training and you can see it is all the way it should be. It helps to train smarter and intelligently if your coach has information about your body and how it works.

 

Jones – When we spoke in 2011 you shared the most memorable career defeat was when you were with riding with Team CSC on a stage of the 2004 Tour Georgia with a hill-top finish. You were ahead but were overtaken by Lance Armstrong who took the victory. On the video footage he was struggling but as he past you, it appeared to be with ease. He has since admitted to doping so does this change your view on these events or your emotions?

Voigt – You won’t be surprised when I say I’ve had this question many times. I try to focus on the good things, I’ve had a good career and I had 65 wins. I just don’t want to poison my mind and my soul by looking back all the time with ‘what if?’ But yes, it has crossed my mind once or twice.

You can’t turn it back, and even if they did give you one or two more wins, you are not going to be there on the podium.

Jens Voigt Ambassador of Awesome

 

Jones – A lot of fans have also been affected by the revelations. But times are changing, in Germany the ARD (public free-to-air TV) are bringing cycling coverage back on air after going off air following the doping scandals.

Voigt – We have a lot of really good German bike riders. Sometimes you have to be less emotional about it and more rational. If you talk to Simon Geschke, stage winner of the this years Tour de France, John Degenkolb or Marcel Kittel, when Lance was winning a tour they were 12 years old. Hell no, they don’t deserve to be punished for something that happened 15 years ago.

Give them a chance, it’s a whole new generation. They have been brought up in a different way. They are a lot more sensitive to this so there is not reason at all to punish them or to stop showing cycling with the new and younger generation.

But you know, it is never black and white. Talking about Lance, he help to make cycling big. He also helped to get us in trouble. I had this really bad crash in the Tour de France in 2009. As I was inside hospital the next couple of days, outside of my team and my family, one person called me. Lance. He went out of his way to get my phone number and sent me a message “Hey Jens, hope you have a good recovery, we hope to see you soon back on the bike”. Nobody else, just Lance. It’s never all black and white.

 

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Jens Voigt will be appearing onstage, together with Phil Liggett, Rohan Dennis and Simon Gerrans for the Tour On Stage event. Tickets are on sale from ticketmaster for the event in Sydney at the State Theatre on Wednesday 18 November and at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre on Saturday 21 November.

Special thanks to photographer Mark Haughton. Photos are © Mark Haughton and were shot at the QT Hotel in Sydney.



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About The Author

Christopher Jones is a recreational cyclist and runs a professional design business, Signale. As the driving force behind Bicycles.net.au he has one of each 'types' of bicycles.

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