Who doesn’t love Jens Voigt? The eccentric German pro cyclist was a fan favorite for years, beloved for his bold racing style, tireless work ethic, and wonderfully quotable commentary. His quirky personality, toughness, and penchant for long, impossible breakaways made him something of a throwback, a refreshing exception in an age where race-radio calculation all too often counts for strategy. In the final years of his career, Jens had a cult following, especially in the United States, where the story of him yelling at his own suffering body during races—shut up, legs!—has become the stuff of legend.
Jens is retired now but milking the cult-cow for all its worth, commanding a huge Twitter audience (#thejensie), hosting a Gran Fondo in Marin, California, and doing commentary on Tour de France tv coverage. (He’s the guy with what sounds like a totally fake German accent.) So, no surprise that Jens is cashing in on his success with an autobiography (written with the help of James Startt) called, of course, Shut Up Legs! My Wild Ride On and Off the Bike.
The book tries to capture Jens’s actual speaking voice in English—not the accent, but the cadence, enthusiasm, and, I have to say, banality of Jens in conversation. In other words, this is a book with a lot of short sentences, innocuous bromides, and exclamation marks. “He’s a great rider and a great guy!” “The racing was so hard!” “Pretty crazy!” Brace yourself: you can expect about five of these per page. It’s a technique that is funny for a while and then kind of irritating.
The persona Voigt presents is that of the simple, hard-working, humble East German (“Be true to who you are,” his father told him—good grief!) who loves to goof around with his teammates, is devoted to his family and friends, and gets a kick out of making pronouncements about bike racing and life, both memorable (“Whatever makes the race wet and sticky is good”) and metaphorical (On the solo breakaway: “The crows come in groups, but the eagle soars alone.”)
As you might expect, the book is full of funny anecdotes by and about Jens, like this account by Chris Boardman of what it was like to share a room with Voigt:
[H]e could just be watching some stupid cartoon about a cow and a chicken in the hotel bedroom and you would get this hilarious running commentary while you were taking a shower. I remember he didn’t really ever go to sleep. He just became unconscious. There was this sudden shift in being, one from being this sort of manic child to just being dead to the world!
Jens is a character, in more ways than one.
As Voigt points out several times in the book, one of the reasons he was so successful at the long breakaways was the tendency of his opponents to underestimate him, to assume that he was as simple and naïve as he looked and sounded. When he’d jump only 40 km into a long stage, no-one would bother to chase him, thinking he was just being foolish and overly aggressive. But there was always method his apparent madness, and occasionally Jens would pull off the most unlikely solo breaks, using this carefully constructed persona to his advantage.
And this is where the book becomes problematic for me. Voigt’s career played out against a backdrop of widespread doping in cycling, as he points out—the Festina Affair, Operacion Puerto, the sophisticated program of US Postal, and suspensions galore affecting most of the biggest names in the sport. As we now know, the depth of breadth of doping culture in pro cycling was (and probably still is) remarkable. But as Jens tells it, he didn’t see any of it. He recounts how “furious” he was with the Festina business, disgusted and horrified by the dopers who besmirched the reputation of his sport, and “shocked” when his CSC teammate Ivan Basso got taken down by a doping scandal. Yet he never mentions seeing anyone actually doping, ever. He would have us believe that all this rampant doping happened out of his sight. Jens expects us to believe that he was profoundly naïve. Or he thinks we are.
In fact, Jens portrays himself as an outspoken critic of doping at the time all this was breaking, a kind of out-there, free-thinker who risked ostracization by criticizing the cheaters in the peloton. He insists that he was mad--“Doping just destroys everything!”--and didn’t care who heard his complaints! Of course, Jens himself seems safe from doping allegations. He never tested positive, that we know, and he never won enough big races to arouse suspicion. So he can say whatever he wants now.
Yet the rebel Jens dares not violate the most sacred code of pro cyclists: to not name names. Ironically, most of Voigt’s closest cycling friends during his career, the ones he talks about most fondly in the memoir—Stuart O’Grady, Bobby Julich, the Schleck brothers, Bjarne Riis—all suffered through doping scandals at some point in their careers. (The big exception to this Boardman, probably Jen’s closest friend and mentor, who, to my knowledge, was never touched by doping scandals.) But Voigt says nothing of the drug scandals around his best buddies. Nothing.
There’s something profoundly hypocritical about Voigt’s convenient blindness and selective memory. The book is full of lies of omission, essentially, difficult parts of cycling history that he would rather not talk about in specific terms. If you think about it, Jens functioned pretty well among a world of dopers, getting along with everybody, it seems, even Lance Armstrong, the one rider Jens talks about as a dope. Voigt’s point about Lance seems to be that just because someone is a doper doesn’t mean that person is necessarily a complete a-hole.
But the corollary of that, I suppose, is that just because Jens never doped doesn’t mean he gets a clean conscience or a free ride. Don’t be fooled by the Jensie. He may portray himself as the big, dumb, manic-child good-time guy, super-domestique, and breakaway artist. But he’s a sly one, a character of his own creation, peddling a persona, a rather lucrative one, at that, playing dumb as he sails off to the bank. If we accept Jens’s theory that Lance Armstrong exists in greyer ethical territory than is usually allowed, I think we need to apply the same standard to Jens. If we don’t, we, like all those riders who shrugged off Voigt’s attacks over the years, are suckers too.