“I don’t know if it would be good for the world if I suddenly spent all day at home.” – Jens Voigt
Perhaps, it’s just the advent of my middle years, but increasingly I find myself admiring those who are excelling later in life. The thought occurred to me again the other night while watching the first stage of the Tour de California. Several times during the more than five hours of racing, the camera would pan to the front of the peloton and show it being led at a furious pace by Jens Voigt.
For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Voigt, he is a German cyclist for the RadioShack Nissan Trek team. I’d best describe him as a 170 lbs of nervous energy encased in a thin membrane of epidermis. Hook him up to the grid and he’d power a small city.
He’s also relentless. Last year, during the Tour de France, Voigt broke away from the peloton early in the race with a few other riders, but on a steep descent crashed and went over the side of a hill and into a ravine. A television crew captured footage of him climbing back up to the road carrying his bike. He then brushed himself off and rode like hell to catch up with the other riders. A few miles later, Voigt went down again, landing painfully on the side of his body and sliding across the asphalt. Agitated and injured, Voigt yelled at himself and his bike and then hopped back on and pedaled away. After I saw this, I didn’t think much more about Jens. After all, after two high-speed crashes, he most certainly was going to call it a day and “phone it in”. But, at the end of the race hours later, when the cameras cut to the peloton approaching the finish, there was Jens crushing it at the head of the pack.
In the 2010 Tour de France something similar occurred. On a 40 mph descent, Voigt’s tire blew and he crashed. His carbon fiber bike was destroyed, his ribs cracked and his body covered with blood and abrasions. It’s at this point that most mortals raise their hand and yell the equivalent of “check, please”. Voigt? He flagged down a car carrying bicycles for a group of young school students and borrowed one. Then he rode off on an undersized children’s bike (with toe clips) to make sure he could complete the race.
Here’s the thing. At 41 years old, Voigt is one of the oldest riders in professional cycling – arguably the most demanding of all professional sports. When he is driving at the head of the peloton, he is leading many riders that are young enough to be one of his children (he has six of them, by the way). He’s no longer a premier rider and rarely achieves a podium finish anymore. But, he is more popular than most cyclists that do. Why? Because it isn’t always about what you achieve. It’s also about how you achieve it. In Voigt’s case it is with passion, single-minded focus and tenacity. And, in the process, he has become a favorite of fans, who share their adulation and grow his legend with quotes like these:
“Scientists used to believe that diamond was the world’s hardest substance. But then they met Jens Voigt.”
“Jens’ testicles are bald because hair does not grow on a mixture of titanium, brass, steel, and cold, hard granite.”
“If Jens Voigt was a country, his principle exports would be Pain, Suffering, and Agony.”
“You are what you eat. Jens Voigt eats spring steel for breakfast, fire for lunch, and a mixture of titanium and carbon fiber for dinner. For between-meal snacks he eats men’s souls, and downs it with a tall cool glass of The Milk of Human Suffering.”
“The grass is always greener on the other side. Unless Jens Voigt has been riding on the other side in which case it’s white with the salty, dried tears of all the riders whose souls he has crushed.”