Shut Up, Legs!: My Wild Ride On and Off the Bike

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9781623365202: Shut Up, Legs!: My Wild Ride On and Off the Bike
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Beloved German cyclist Jens Voigt isn’t a superstar in the traditional sense of the word. Although he won three stages of the Tour De France—and wore the yellow jersey twice—Voigt never claimed an overall victory. He became a star because he embodies qualities that go beyond winning and losing: sacrifice, selflessness, reliability, and devotion. European and American crowds were drawn to his aggressive riding style, outgoing nature, and refreshing realness.

Voigt adopted a tireless work ethic that he carried throughout his career. In Shut Up, Legs! (a legendary Jensism), Voigt reflects upon his childhood in East Germany, juggling life as a professional cyclist and a father of six, and how he remained competitive without doping. Shut Up, Legs! offers a rare glimpse inside his heart and mind.

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About the Author:

Jens Voigt is a German former professional road bicycle racer for several teams, the last one being UCI ProTeam Trek Factory Racing. Voigt has worn the yellow jersey of the Tour de France twice. His career achievements include winning the Critérium International a record-tying five times and a number of 1-week stage races, as well as two Tour de France stage victories. In September 2014, he set a new hour record. He lives in Berlin.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

GROWING UP IN EAST GERMANY

"While the Communist system sometimes looked good on paper, unfortunately, it was run by human beings."

"JUST DON'T SHOOT ME IN THE BACK! You can run, but whatever you do, don't shoot me!"

That's what my father, Egon, would tell his patrol partner every night as a young soldier in the East German army. My dad was born in 1946 and was one of the first kids born into the new East Germany, established when the country was divided at the end of World War II. And even though East Germany and West Germany were two separate states throughout most of his childhood, the borders remained open.

It was not until they started building the Wall in 1961 that people were confronted with absolute choices, and some would flee desperately to the West. This is exactly when my dad was serving his military duty. Now when we talk about the Wall, most people just think about the Berlin Wall. But that was only a small piece of it. In reality, a whole barrier system was set up all along the border with West Germany.

You see, back in the early days of Communism, back when they were still building the Wall, soldiers always went out on patrol in pairs. Part of the logic was that they were supposed to sort of patrol each other, as well. And if one of the soldiers made a break for it, to try to flee to the West, the other was expected to shoot.

And since Dassow, where my dad lived, was next to the West German border by the Baltic Sea, a lot of soldiers would try to flee. The problem with this patrol method, though, was that if a soldier was going to make a run for it, often he would shoot his partner first, so that the partner could not shoot him when he ran.

Night after night, my dad would just make it clear to his partner that he wouldn't shoot, so there was no reason for his partner to get paranoid and shoot him first. Pretty crazy! But then those were crazy times.

My dad was like most Germans, who are themselves like most other people. And like most other people, if you give them the choice to live wherever they want, the vast majority will choose to stay right where they are. My dad was like that. He wasn't going to run, but he didn't want to get shot for staying in East Germany, either!

And although my childhood in East Germany is more and more a part of my past, as I have said, it still remains very much a part of me. It's funny. When you add them up, those years amount to less than half of my life now. But they were formative years, spent in an entirely different world than what my children know today.

Like most others, I try to erase the bad memories from my past and focus instead on the positive ones. And that's why all these years later, there still aren't too many bad things I can say about growing up in East Germany.

Basically, I had a good, happy childhood, one with no stress. Life was just slower. It was lived on a smaller scale than life today. And it was more relaxed. Part of the reason for that was that Dassow was such a small town. I remember back in 1987, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dassow's first receiving official "city" status. Up until then, it was officially considered just a village. I thought, "Huh? You mean this little town is officially big enough to be considered a city?" It still looked pretty small to me! Up until then, I just never saw Dassow as anything more than a village, because, well, it really is.

Growing up, I spent most of my time outside. But even then it seemed as though 20 to 30 steps in either direction would take me out of the village. That's how small it appeared through the eyes of even a child. We had one shoe shop, one clothing shop, one flower shop, one toy store, one newsstand and stationery shop, one food shop, and one bakery. That was about it. Now part of that was simply a result of living in Communist East Germany. There was never any market competition, so we just had one shop to supply each of our basic needs. But part of it was also just Dassow.

None of that could keep me from dreaming big dreams, though. My first great dream was to become an astronaut. Flying into space was just the biggest adventure I could imagine. The dream was fueled by East German television, which documented Soviet flights and the adventures of Sigmund Jähn, an East German, who became the first German to enter outer space when he joined the Soviet Intercosmos mission in 1976. Jähn was such a hero, I imagine most East German kids at the time wanted to be astronauts.

Soon, however, I decided that space might not be my thing and I would be better off as a forestry engineer, because I loved the great outdoors so much. That dream lasted until I entered a special sports high school in Berlin, where I quickly realized that it would be hard to spend my life in the forest if I was going to become a world-class athlete.

Once I got into the high school system, I thought journalism might be the best career path. I'd always loved reading, and if you can believe it, I was even in the poetry club for a while. I also enjoyed writing, so the idea of working for one of the news agencies was appealing to me. But once the Wall came down, everything changed.

Before the Wall came down, life was just so much simpler and more relaxed. The Communist system did its best to eliminate competition. There was no stress about careers, no stress about outperforming somebody else. For the average person, there wasn't a big difference in status among different professions. You have to remember that in East Germany, an engineer, a doctor, or a factory worker like my dad pretty much all made the same salary. Egon worked as a metallurgist for a company making farm equipment, and my mom, Edith, was one of the town's photographers.

Egon was the big one in the family. He is tall like me and as strong as an ox. But he was quiet, too, quite unlike me! As a kid, he was a pretty good soccer player, but he never really had the chance to pursue sports because of his responsibilities on the family farm. And once he was older, most of his strength was put to good use working in the factory.

To be honest, I didn't see all that much of my dad when I was growing up, because he generally left for work before I got up in the morning. He would come home at 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. Sometimes we did homework with him, but I came to realize that when he came home from work most days, he was just exhausted.

I saw more of my mom. Edith was able to arrange her work so that she pretty much only worked half days. That way she could tend to us three kids. She would get up with us in the morning, fix us breakfast, and then go off to work. After school, we would often meet her at the photo studio and start doing our homework while she finished up. Then we would all go home together.

My parents didn't have big, important jobs, but they only made, say, 100 marks (about 50 US dollars) less per month than a doctor did. And it wasn't a competitive thing, either, because everybody knew they weren't going to get rich anytime soon. This acceptance led to far less jealousy among people than you see today, because, well, people had a lot less to be jealous of. As a result, I do think that people were friendlier to each other back then. They just had a lot more time to spend in their gardens talking to their friends, having a barbecue, or kicking a ball around.

Also, although it might be hard to imagine today, consumerism basically didn't exist back in East Germany. For starters, our choices of brands and products were very limited. Motorbikes were all MZ. Televisions were Strassfurth. Cameras were all Praktica. It was the same for just about everything: radios, bread, sugar, you name it.

There were only two types of cars: a big one and a small one! The Trabant was the small car and Wartburg was the big car, so people weren't obsessed with the make, model, or size of their cars.

And like just about everything else except food, cars were really hard to get in East Germany. They were so hard to get that, believe it or not, the standard procedure was that when a child was born, his or her parents would register the baby for a car! That way, when the child was 16 or 17, it would be their turn on the waiting list and they would get one.

My parents were regular working-class people with three kids: my older brother, Ronny; me; and my sister, Cornelia. We never had much money, and we didn't get our first car until I was about 15. But that said, we had what we needed.

In some ways, growing up in Dassow was different from growing up in most other parts of the country, because our village was located on the border of East Germany and West Germany. As a result, we were more aware of the differences between the two cultures than most other East Germans were. Heck, if we turned our antennas in the right direction, we could even get West German radio and television! But we had to be careful that the police didn't see which way the antennas pointed, or there could be a knock on the door!

Nevertheless, we had few regrets about living in East Germany. My dad had made a life for himself in Dassow. That's where he came from. That's where he met Edith. That's where he had his children. That's where he had a job. He never had a reason to be unhappy. Really, when I think back on my parents, they were always very grounded, and they kept things in perspective.

Although they never tried to flee East Germany, they didn't embrace the Communist system, either, and refused to become members of the party. There were consequences for such decisions! It definitely cost my father certain jobs, and I can tell you that it didn't look good on my application to sports school later on, either. But Egon always said, "Jens, shortcuts in life just give you short-term advantages. Be true to who you are."

My father also understood that if he ever did cross the border, he would be a nobody. He would have to start over again, and it was not a given that his life would be better, that he was going to make big money or anything. Plenty of people were actually worse off after crossing.

I remember how, when the Wall came down, people were saying, "Well, now we have the freedom, but we don't have the money to express that freedom!" And they were right. Sure, in theory, they had the freedom to suddenly pick up and go to Hawaii, but they didn't necessarily have the money to buy the plane tickets!

So once the Wall came down, all of us East Germans quickly realized that there was potential for life to be better, but not for everybody. There was a lot more stress, and we had a lot more responsibility for ourselves. We had to work hard.

In East Germany, you really didn't have to work hard at all. It was just a no-go that you could get fired. There was no unemployment in East Germany. Can you imagine that today? Even if you were lazy or just plain stupid, the state would create a job for you. That was definitely one of the advantages of the Communist system.

But while the Communist system sometimes looked good on paper, unfortunately, it was run by human beings. And so, inevitably, it just went to shit! That's the way it is with us people. The idea was that everybody would work as hard as he could for the common good. You know, just out of their own good conscience and goodwill, everyone would strive to be better. The stronger would unite to pull the weaker up. It's a beautiful idea in theory, but it just didn't turn out that way.

And, of course, life wasn't all good. It was filled with propaganda and surveillance, and the state really controlled individual lives. Officially, it was illegal to listen to West German radio stations or watch movies from the West, although we did have access to certain authorized films, books, or music. Now my parents were pretty relaxed about it and would let us watch the movies coming directly from the West. But we had to promise not to talk about it in school the next day. Like I said, if those radio and television antennas were pointed in the wrong direction--toward the West-- the police would show up at your door. Often, we just had to point the antennas to the eastern side, even though we knew that western reception would not be as good, because if your antenna was pointed east, it was impossible to get good reception from the west.

It was pretty scary, really. Heck, I remember one day, maybe 10 years after the Wall came down, my dad was listening to Radio Hamburg and working in the garage. All of a sudden, a police car drove by, and my dad just jumped! It was pure reflex. "Oh my God!" he said. "Can you believe that after all these years I'm still afraid to listen to the wrong radio station?" Can you imagine how much fear had been burned into his brain? How strong the control and the fear were? "I have to laugh at myself," he said. "But I'm just shocked at how deeply it's still inside me!"

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