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—who emceed the team presentation at the 2017 Tour start in Düsseldorf on Thursday—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
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.
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 solid-gray 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 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. … That was like the first time I had seen buildings higher than two or three stories. And I had to deal with living away from home and being the youngest at the boarding school. … 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. All of a sudden I was surrounded by pressure. … 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 night the Berlin Wall opened
There was a knock on my door. I was just sitting there doing homework in my dormitory 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! 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 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.!