Wanna challenge an ex-pro? Careful what you wish for

Jens Voigt and Tracy Moseley explain what happens when amateurs try to race them

The instinct is natural: A former pro shows up to an open gym/a pickup game/a group ride, and you wonder, “what do they still have left in the tank?” 

Maybe you’ve been taking your own training seriously lately. Maybe you’re feeling more confident about your fitness than you have in a long time. “Maybe,” you tell yourself, “I can beat this person at their own game.” 

News flash: You probably can’t.

“If guys start to jump on my wheel, my husband will say, ‘Hey, watch out, there’s been plenty of guys that have injured themselves trying to keep up with Tracy,'” Tracy Moseley says. “And I have had a few different people that have definitely crashed and hurt themselves, and will then say it was because they were trying to keep up.”

I have had a few different people that have definitely crashed and hurt themselves, and will then say it was because they were trying to keep up.

- Tracy Moseley

Moseley, a four-time world champion in downhill and enduro mountain bike racing, is 42 years old and doesn’t train like she used to, though she’s been competing in ebike races lately. But she’s still fast as blazes despite what some amateur riders out on the trail might assume. 

Every year she organizes a gathering of talented women mountain bikers — friends and promising youngsters — for a weekend of riding and camaraderie. Once, a few of the women were waiting at the entrance of a trail for others to catch up when a group of men pushed through their ranks. Moseley sensed they were being underestimated. 

“I could tell they were like, ‘Oh shit, let’s get ahead of these girls, otherwise they’re going to hold us all up,'” Moseley says. “So we just let them through and smiled and said, ‘Hi.’ Then we gave then probably 20 seconds, then we were like, ‘Right, let’s hunt them down.'”

Tracy Moseley is four-time world champion across downhill and enduro racing.

The fastest downhill riders among the women were set off first down the trail, and one by one the men were reeled in.

“And I think by the end of the trail, they pretty much all had stopped and pulled off and were just fully hounded,” Moseley says. “And then when they got to the bottom, they were like, ‘Ah, I see who you guys are,’ and recognized a few faces. So that was pretty funny.”

Ask any former pro in any discipline, and they’ll likely have similar stories about half-wheeling weekend warriors who want to measure up against the former racers. “Former” is an important word. Ex-pros are often retired for a reason: Life as a professional athlete is a near constant grind through mental and physical stress. Those old pros often look forward to a life of ambling speeds in charity ride pelotons.

I had a time when I raced Cippolini. I raced Chris Froome and Wiggins. I'm done. I raced against the best in the world. I don't want this anymore.

- Jens Voigt

For example, Jens Voigt is arguably one of the toughest road cyclists of all time with a two-decade professional career that featured 17 consecutive Tour de France appearances, three individual grand tour stage wins, 60 total wins across one-day races and general classifications, and a stint as the one hour record holder. Like Moseley, he’s proven himself at the highest level of his sport. Now, he’d much rather relax

“The first thing that came off when I retired was the computer. I haven’t looked at any heart rates or any miles or any distance anymore. I ride how I feel, how fast I feel, or how hard I want,” Voigt says. “It’s good to know that I can decide, I can say yes or no.”

However, many of Voigt’s biggest fans have a hard time accepting that he lives a more leisurely lifestyle now. After all, he’s not far removed from his racing career, retiring at 42 less than seven years ago. But though Voigt may be spry, rarely does he feel an urge to show it.

Jens Voigt enjoys a slower pace post retirement.

“With the charity rides you still have people go, ‘Oh, you are Shut Up Legs, come on let’s go and suffer.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, no, I’m retired. Retired in capital letters: RETIRED. I don’t want to suffer any more,'” Voigt says. 

“I had a time when I raced Cippolini. I raced Chris Froome and Wiggins. I’m done. I raced against the best in the world. I don’t want this anymore.”

Voigt understands that people are excited to see him when he makes group ride appearances. His go-to method for cooling down competitive energy is to set clear boundaries with those around him. Voigt likes to talk, so he’ll strike up conversations that can only take place at a leisurely pace, on topics ranging from family upbringings to local wildlife to rocket propulsion.

And if that doesn’t work, he’ll simply tell the most race-y riders to take it easy. Given his stature as a former pro, they almost always listen.

It's probably not politically correct, but there's something quite enjoyable about hounding down a guy and and passing him.

- Tracy Moseley

“Sometimes I just go, ‘Look, it’s a charity ride, we want to raise awareness and funding for a certain cause,'” Voigt says. “‘And we all have a partner, a wife, we have parents or children or friends at home, and you all want to go home happy and in one piece. So let’s not take any risk. It’s our free Saturday morning. The last thing we want is to crash or to hurt ourselves, right?'”

But bargaining only goes so far. There’s a certain species of rider — Voigt calls them MAMILs, which stands for Middle Aged Men In Lycra — who will stop at nothing in an attempt to send a message of physical superiority. “For MAMILs, the lycra goes on and the brain goes out,” Voigt says.

Moseley understands this phenomenon particularly well. As an elite female rider, there is no shortage of male riders on the trails or at events who want to prove they’re better than the girls. Because she’s a former champion and a well-known know figure, Moseley is frequently a target.

Tracy Moseley never loses her cool.

“Even now if I go back and race enduros, I can probably guarantee there’ll be a couple of people that I know will come up to me as soon as I finish and go, ‘Let’s see your results sheet, let’s see your time, I want to compare myself,'” Moseley says. “And it’s like, ‘Dude, I’m not even training full time anymore, I’m just here for a bit of fun.'”

Moseley plays those interactions cool and friendly, all while gladly serving those riders their comeuppance.

“It’s probably not politically correct, but there’s something quite enjoyable about hounding down a guy and and passing him, making him feel like he’s not as invincible as he thought he was,” Moseley laughs. “I get a bit of pleasure from it.”

According to Voigt, the MAMIL instinct to measure themselves against others often extends past performance into equipment. Some riders will point out that they’re riding lighter bikes than Voigt’s UCI-compliant rig. “I’m like, ‘This bike is good enough to do the Tour de France. It’s good enough.'” Even the endlessly cheerful Voigt has a breaking point for so much endless comparison.

When I show up at bike rides, mostly the people know who I was as a bike rider. So it's up to me to make them feel comfortable, and make them feel like, 'You're safe. Relax, I won't eat you.'

- Jens Voigt

“Sometimes if you’re in a bad mood, then you just ride until the person next to you explodes,” Voigt says. “Sometimes it’s learning through pain. And that is sometimes effective because the painful lessons stick in your mind. But then that’s not really social and friendly.”

Voigt and Moseley emphasize that many competitive amateurs aren’t acting out negative intentions. Sometimes riders get carried away, or don’t realize they’re doing something that can be frustrating for the pros and everyone else around them who is trying to maintain a recreational pace.

Like a neo-pro overflowing with anxious energy at the start of a first big race, some riders forget to pace themselves in the presence of a cycling legend. 

“They are maybe just intimidated. Like, ‘Oh my god this is Shut Up Legs, I’ve got to ride as hard as I can, otherwise he’s just laughing at me,'” Voigt says. “When I show up at bike rides, mostly the people know who I was as a bike rider. So it’s up to me to make them feel comfortable, and make them feel like, ‘You’re safe. Relax, I won’t eat you.’ And that always helps.”

Jens Voigt is a former one-hour world record holder. You really want to take him on?

Plenty of experienced amateur riders also do their parts to keep the atmosphere light in group rides and on trails. Moseley is grateful for the men she knows who have helped make the often testosterone-saturated world of mountain biking a little better for women: “They’re the ones that have really pushed and progressed and respect you for just being a good bike rider, irrespective of whether you’re female or a male.” 

She has a unique perspective of how rider habits vary among genders as a long time coach with her mountain biking team, T-Mo Racing. Boys and girls, she says, simply approach biking differently, even from a relatively young age. 

“Often you get girls that come on coaching courses that are like, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that,’ and actually they’re really good riders that just lack confidence,” Moseley says. “Whereas the guys often have a lot of confidence and not necessarily the skill to go with it. And sometimes they get away with that, and sometimes they don’t. I think that’s just how we’re wired.”

It's like, 'Dude, I'm not even training full time anymore, I'm just here for a bit of fun.'

- Tracy Moseley

No one can get by on confidence alone. The big difference between a good amateur and an elite pro is not just innate skill, but years of accumulated focus, hard work and experience with every situation and setback that sports can put in athletes’ way. Moseley and Voigt have weathered injuries, burnout and disappointment interspersed with their successes. They’ve seen every type of terrain and weather condition, and dealt with the full spectrum of personalities as teammates and rivals. 

They are one with their bikes in a way that is unfathomable for even the best of the rest of us. And because of that, the gulf between their ability and a talented amateur’s will almost always be insurmountable, as unfair as that can seem.   

“Some people, they see their chance. They go, ‘Oh my god, this is the NBA player.’ Or, ‘I want to try to see how fast I can go against him. I want to see if I’m still as good as I was in high school,'” Voigt says. “Some people, you can see that they wish they could have had a career like that, but it didn’t work out, and then there’s this little bitterness sometimes.”

Tracy Moseley is still kicking butt on the E-Bike World Tour.

Voigt empathizes with that dogged competitiveness a bit. He, too, sometimes struggles with turning off his competitive switch in situations where it might be inappropriate. Like, say, playing with his kids.

“You look at your cards, or if it’s a tabletop game you look at your resources, and you try to find the best way to destroy them,” Voigt laughs. “You have to go, ‘No, they are your children, you love them, you don’t need to destroy them. It’s not a bike race.'”

Moseley and Voigt do give in to their own competitive impulses on occasion … when appropriate. After all, who doesn’t like going fast on a bike? They are human. And just-for-fun rides have produced some amazing memories for them. Voigt recalls a charity ride he did in Tennessee shortly after his 2014 retirement, when what was supposed to be a relaxing pedal became an all-out group effort.

Sometimes you feel that people are prepared, and for them it would be the highlight of the year to race one hill with Jens Voigt. 'So then I go, 'OK let's do it.'

- Jens Voigt

“You know how stupid we cyclists are, we lie to each other all the time: ‘No I haven’t trained. I’m terrible. No I’m not in shape.’ And then it goes faster, faster, faster. And I’m like, ‘OK, if you want this, then let’s go faster, faster, faster,'” Voigt says. “At the end we were swapping off and all that. And when we finished, we were all completely shattered. 

“I said, ‘Wasn’t it funny? We are plain idiots hurting ourselves so bad,’ but it was awesome. Everybody was just laughing. ‘Yes, we are stupid.'”

According to Moseley, it helps to have some personal familiarity with a rider before you start trying to test their limits. Barring that, you should at least understand yours.

“If it’s someone you know and you’ve always had that constant, there’s a few guys where there’s always that standing joke of who beat who between me and them,” Moseley says. “Rather than some random person that just comes up on the trail and tries to hound you or hassles you. And then if you do pass them on the trail they’ll stay on your wheel, and you can hear them all over the place, and you’re like, ‘Oh my god they’re gonna die.'”

Jens Voigt grinding the 2018 Unbound Gravel 200 trail.

If you absolutely want to race against an ex-pro — and you understand the terms and conditions: It’s not likely to end well for you — then there is one simple trick to make sure the interaction goes as smoothly as possible: Just ask politely.

“So no half wheeling,” Voigt says. “If people ask, I can give them a clear answer, and go, ‘Listen, I have terrible jet lag. Not today please.’ Or I’ll go, ‘Hey yeah, I feel good. Let’s find the next hill and then we can have a limited one-mile or two-mile race, why not.’

“Sometimes you feel that people are prepared, and for them it would be the highlight of the year to race one hill with Jens Voigt. So then I go, ‘OK let’s do it.’ And it hurts like hell.”