Jens Voigt: how to suffer like a pro

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Jens Voigt: how to suffer like a pro

He who suffers most will win – Jens Voigt reveals how to make those screaming legs shut up

Eddy Merckx once said ‘the race is won by the rider who can suffer the most’ and when the greatest cyclist of all time speaks, you take note.

And nobody epitomised suffering on the bike as much as one man who literally took those words to heart and coined his own catchphrase to help him through the pain barrier – “Shut up legs!”

Jens Voigt’s penchant for a day-long breakaway or daring raid on the peloton characterised his lengthy career, a career that only ended last year as he was about to turn 43 years old.

And the German wasn’t done there either, smashing the UCI Hour Record as he put himself in the hurt locker one last time.

So when we wanted to find out the secret to being able to suffer like a pro, we figured there was no better person to ask. We headed along to the opening of the CycleFit’s new store in Manchester – where the Jensie was a VIP guest – to find out exactly that.

Get your head in the game

Not everybody can sprint like Mark Cavendish, time trial like Sir Bradley Wiggins or climb like Chris Froome – so if you want to tick off your goals in cycling, suffering is key.

For Voigt, it was his ability to suffer that earned him success. “I had to do something else if I wanted to win,” he explains. “I had to put everybody else through the meat grinder.”

So how exactly do you do that? A significant part of that is the mental challenge – and Voigt says he would get his Hulk on when out on the road.

“For me it always helped to make myself aggressive or angry,” he said. “I don’t know if it would work for everybody but for me it helped to create more energy.

“To make yourself angry, you have to get into the mindset of hating that person out in front of you or those people chasing, or the time limit you’re trying to beat.

“It’s about remembering the times when you got beat and being determined not let it happen again.”

And anger isn’t the only thing Voigt used to drive him on when on the attack – self-belief is key.

“In a race, for example, if you are at the front trying to give yourself positive feedback, then it’s about thinking ‘OK, we’re going to stay out here, I’m going to make it, I’m going to beat everybody’,” explains Voigt.

“If you are chasing somebody, then it’s a different game – you have to believe you will catch them.”

Listen to Eddy

The aforementioned words of wisdom from Eddy Merckx also helped to inspire Voigt – after all, Merckx didn’t acquire his nickname ‘the Cannibal’ for nothing.

And it’s not just remembering that he who suffers most wins, but also that if it’s hurting you, your fellow riders on the road will also be hurting.

“If it’s easy for you then it’s easy for all those behind you,” Voigt reiterates. “When it’s hurting you, that’s when you can make a difference.

“I came across these two sayings [by Eddy Merckx] early in my life and I quickly had some success with them.

“It just made something tick and after I had the first positive experience with that philosophy then it was a case of just repeating that mantra again and again.

“When the race was sticky, messy and uncomfortable then it was good for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather be a sprinter – ride all day in the peloton, do a couple of minutes in the wind and get my arms up, get the girls, the glory and the money!”

Train hard…

Like all things in cycling though, the key to suffering on the bike, isn’t just about being mentally tougher, but having the physical prowess to back it up – and that means training. A lot.

Voigt says that ‘just riding’ will get you so far, but if you want to learn to hurt yourself on the day of a race or sportive, then you need to make sure you’re hurting yourself in training, too.

“Unfortunately, cycling is all about fitness,” he says. “As a soccer player, you have to be fit but you also have to be clever and have a lot of skill. As a cyclist you don’t need any skills at all. You just need to be able to suffer and push the pedals.

“You need the minimum skill of knowing how to ride a bike but it’s not like you need to be clever like a soccer player, picking passes out. As a cyclist it’s just you.

“If you stop pedalling, you are out. As a soccer player when you tire you have team-mates who can cover if you stand still. In cycling you can’t hide. You just have to train hard.

“When you start it’s enough to just ride your bike for a certain time at a certain speed. That will get you to a certain fitness and level of performance but then you will get stuck there and if you want to reach another level you basically have to hurt yourself in training.

“You have to do the painful intervals and the ones that hurt even more are probably the most efficient ones. You will feel the benefits from it.”

Watch out for some of Jens Voigt’s favourite interval training sessions on RCUK.

…and train well

But it’s not just about riding hard – clocking miles until you drop will hurt, and build your fitness in some respects, but the key to good training – and the additional suffering you’re able to endure off the back of it – is quality over quantity, Voigt says.

Though the twilight of his career was spent with Trek Factory Racing, it was at CSC ProTeam (later Saxo Bank and now Tinkoff-Saxo) that Voigt achieved some of his most notable successes, winning stages of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia.

And he says it was his former directeur sportif, Bjarne Riis, who introduced him to ‘training hard in the right way’, following a dedicated programme to ensure you make the most of your time on the bike and build your ability to suffer.

“Cycling requires a lot of hard training – maybe less hours than you might think, but certainly in terms of quality,” Voigt explains.

“Bjarne Riis once said it’s easy to train hard but the tricky part is to train hard in the right way.

Three training sessions to improve your Functional Threshold Power

“When I was younger, if I came home from training and I was tired and hurting then I knew it had been a good session.

“Now you have to count calories, count watts and train your body in the right way. Just riding on a certain level doesn’t help.

“You have to train higher, recover, train higher again – that’s how you get better. Unfortunately there’s a lot of suffering involved in cycling!”

And above all, back yourself

So a positive mentality has helped you suffer in training, and that training has helped build you up physically to suffer on event day. Now what?

Voigt says the key he found was just to back his instinct – even if, when he was racing, that sometimes meant going against his DS in the team car.

“Once the race started, I raced a lot on instinct,” he said. “If I felt good, the riding was good, the sun was shining, then I’d go.

“I swear also, once every two years or so, I could almost see the future running through my mind. I’d just see it – turn left here, then I’m going to go, I’m going to get to the top of the climb first and they’re never going to see me again, it’s just going to happen. And it did.

“Unfortunately it wasn’t often but I had a few moments like that. The Tour of Colorado, for example, three years ago – right from the start the break formed and I looked in the group and there were about 25 of us and I just knew it wasn’t going to work. Too many riders, too many different teams, too many different interests.

“There were 145km to go – 90 miles – and I just thought right, this is how it’s going to play out. I’m going to attack them and if I get to the top of that mountain with 1’30″ they’ll not see me again.

“So I did that, I attacked, and straight away the DS pulls up – he was actually younger than me – and I could see he was not OK with my decision to go alone but I was climbing so I couldn’t really talk to explain it to him!

“He’s saying, ‘Jens, you know, it’s 90 miles – that’s a long way and there’s five or six guys behind, maybe you should wait’ and I was just saying ‘No Lars, this is the plan, I have to do it like this’ – and it worked exactly as I planned.”

So if it’s a race, or just a long training session or climb and you’re feeling good push yourself, don’t let doubt – or doubters – hold you back, Voigt says.

Oh, and there is one more bit of advice Voigt can offer after a long career in the saddle…

Sort your playlist out!

He explains: “Often when you are in a big solo breakaway in a race, you will find the last song you heard on the team bus is on a loop in your head.

“If it’s a bad song then it’s hopeless – it’s game over!”

So there you have it, you heard it from the horse’s mouth – if you want those legs to shut up, then get angry, trust the Cannibal, train hard, train well… and make sure you’re not listening to rubbish music before you ride!

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