While veterans of the Tour de France remember the historic 1987 start in West Berlin well, there are far fewer accounts from those living on the other side of the Berlin Wall. But Jens Voigt remembers it vividly. A teenage student at the K.J.S. Ernst Grube in East Berlin, Voigt was a promising cyclist trying to make the grade in the ever-competitive East German sports school system. Although he, like all East Germans, was forbidden to cross the border to watch the race, he was close enough to pick it up on West Berlin television. And it changed his life. Here are just a few memories about life in the East from his 2016 autobiography, “Shut Up Legs!”

Words: Jens Voigt (compiled by James Startt)
Images: James Startt & Yuzuru Sunada
Tour de France 2001, stage 16: Castelsarrasin to Sarran. Image: Yuzuru Sunada. Opening image: Berlin. Image: James Startt.

ON WATCHING THE TOUR FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BERLIN WALL. For me, the Tour de France just always held this sort of mysterious mystique. I remember my dad Egon telling me when I was growing up: “You know in the West they have another race as big as the Peace Race. They call it the Tour de France.” I was only 11 or 12, just getting into the sport, but I was already hooked. Of course, East German television would not cover the Tour, but I remember the newspapers would occasionally publish the top-five results of the Tour and then, since we lived by the border, we occasionally saw bits and pieces on West German television. This was back in the day when Bernard Hinault was winning. I had no idea how to pronounce that strange mix of vowels and consonants. I remember thinking Hinault sounded something like, “Heenawult” or something like that! That must have been in 1982, when he was winning everything. I remember thinking, “Hey, that guy must be pretty good!”

But it was not until 1987, when the Tour actually started in Berlin, that I had my first idea of just how big the Tour de France was. Now the Berlin Wall was still very much in place at the time, so going to see the Tour was not a possibility, but I was already in sports school in Berlin, so it was easier to get Western television as well as West Berlin radio stations that were really talking up the Tour. I’ll never forget watching the start of the race from my little television in my dorm room, with my little antenna pointed towards West Berlin. I was just captivated. All those colorful jerseys with all sorts of different sponsors were just so beautiful, so rich, compared to my solidgray East German national jersey! In addition to that, the prologue was won by a Polish rider, Lech Piasecki. That was such a watershed moment for me. I remember thinking, wow, if a guy like that can come from a Communist country and ride the Tour de France, maybe I can too someday! And from that day on, the Tour de France was a dream.

ON GROWING UP IN EAST GERMANY. Until the Wall came down, life was just so much slower 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 was not a big difference in status between 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.

My parents didn’t have big jobs, but they only made, say, 100 marks less per month than a doctor. You see, there just wasn’t a lot of competition, since nobody was going to be getting rich anytime soon. And since there was less competition there was less jealousy because, well, people had less to be jealous about!

And although it might be hard to imagine today, consumerism basically did not exist back in East Germany. For starters our choices of brands and products were very limited. Motorbikes were all M.Z; televisions were Stassfurt; cameras were all Praktica. It was the same for just about everything, radios, bread, sugar, you name it. They only had two types of cars, a big one and a small one! The Trabant was the small car and Wartburg was the big car.

Tour de France 2009, stage 16 from Martigny to Bourg-Saint-Maurice. The brutal crash on Col du Petit-Saint Bernard. Image: Yuzuru Sunada.

Heck, 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 actually no unemployment in East Germany. Can you even 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 that Communist system. There was just zero unemployment!

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 just the way it is with us people! On paper it was a great idea. Everybody would work as hard as he could for the common good. You know just out of their own good conscience and good will everyone would strive to be better. And the stronger would unite to pull the weaker up. It’s a great idea in theory, but it just didn’t turn out that way.

ON THE EAST GERMAN SPORTS SCHOOL. So there was little “Jensie,” this 14-year-old kid going to the K.J.S. Ernst Grube sports school in Berlin. Just about every school in East Germany was named after some martyr that died at the hand of the Nazi regime and Ernst was one of those.

Berlin was the big city, and leaving home for the first time when I was just 14 was not easy. You know that was like the first time I had seen buildings higher than two or three stories, so in my eyes that was a pretty big deal and there were a lot of changes going on and I had to deal with living away from home and being the youngest at the boarding school. And of course all of the older kids are telling me where my place was in the pecking order…

…Jeez, I was just 14 years old when I started. I was missing home and at the same time seeing some of my friends going home and quitting. We lost the first kid after just a month. And another went home for Christmas and didn’t come back!

It was just a very hard time for me. For the first 14 years of my life I had lived pretty much a pressure-free existence. And all of a sudden I was surrounded by pressure. Sports school was all about making the grade, about being good enough, something I’d never once questioned before.

In addition, I had grown up in a very harmonious family. I was just not used to being all alone. And because I was spending so much time training, my grades suffered. But I kept telling myself, “No, no, you can’t go home!” My parents loved me and always said I could come home. But I also knew that they were proud of me and where I was going. They never put pressure me, but I really didn’t want to let them down.

ON THE PEACE RACE: THE EAST’S EQUIVALENT TO THE TOUR. The highlight for me during all those years was winning the Peace Race with the German national team in 1994. For old East Germans like myself, the Peace Race was the Tour de France! Established after World War II, it was a sort of race of good faith around all of the Eastern Bloc countries. I mean let’s face it, us Germans brought so much terror to our neighboring countries in the 20thcentury that many people in those countries just looked at us like we were all monsters that just eat other humans! So in order to rebuild some semblance of normality, some semblance of good faith and understanding, we came up with idea of the Peace Race.

Berlin. Image: James Startt.

You know after World War II, people on all sides of the border didn’t want to have anything to do with war. All they really wanted was to be able to raise their kids in peace, have a job, pay some taxes, see their kids grow up and to have other children. In that regard the Peace Race was helpful. It brought people together and made people remember that, whatever side of the border you were on, everyone was human. So the Peace Race helped a lot in building good relations after the war and every year it would go between Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Every year it would start in the capital of one of the countries, go through another and finish in the capital of yet another. And it always changed so that each country was equally involved. The race symbol was always a white dove, I believe inspired or designed by Picasso, which just goes to show at what level the race was designed to have social significance.

ON THE NIGHT THE BERLIN WALL OPENED. And then there was a knock on my door. I was just sitting there doing homework in my dormitory at the sports high school in East Berlin when friends came in saying, “Hey the Wall is open! You want to go see what is on the other side?” That was November 9, 1989. I was just 17 at the time. But somehow I knew that my life was about to change forever.

Of course I knew that there was another world out there, another world besides the one we lived in East Germany. And even though the leaders and the state media always insisted that they built the Wall to protect us, we all knew that mostly it was just holding us back.

I, like just about any German, will never forget that night. Some people were actually afraid to step across and go into West Berlin. But that was not a problem for me! Off I went to Invalidenstrasse, like Checkpoint Charlie, one of the three crossings where the Berlin Wall was open that first night. And that is where I saw the West for the first time! As soon as I stepped across I couldn’t believe my eyes! A whole other world just opened up before me! There was more chocolate on the candy rack in one store than I had seen in my whole entire life! And everything was just so clean! West Berlin was so much cleaner than where I had grown up in East Berlin. Everything it seemed was bigger and better. And everything was newer. Everything was well maintained. You could tell immediately that there was more money there. It was a new world. It was U.N.B.E.L.I.E.V.A.B.L.E.!

Follow Jens on Instagram and Twitter: @thejensie. Buy the book at: amazon.com/Shut-Up-Legs-Wild-Ride