Cycle Heroes March 1, 2010

Cycling Hall of Infamy - Jan Ulrich

What was it Ian Stewart once said? “First is first, and second is nowhere”. Don’t tell Jan Ullrich. Ullrich made “nowhere” an art form, but still kept a toothbrush on the Tour de France podium for most of his career, before the toothbrush upped sticks and plonked itself in the murky world of drink driving, failed drugs tests and dodgy doctors, hardly extraordinary for a career intertwined with some of the sport’s darkest times and shadiest characters from the start.

Jan Ullrich was born in December 1973 in Rostock, East Germany. As you might expect, he showed an early natural aptitude for life in the saddle, and was winning races at the age of 11, progressing to become champion of the German Democratic Republic (the formal name for East Germany) in 1988. Ullrich had been educated at the KJS sports school in Berlin, which closed two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and so he and his team mates made their way to Hamburg in 1991, joining an amateur club in the city. During this time, Ullrich came in 5th in the amateur Cyclo-cross World Championships and was victorious in the Oslo-based World Amateur Road Championship, whilst Lance Armstrong took the equivalent professional title.

It was in 1994 that Ullrich hit the professional ranks, joining the Telekom team, and claiming a third place in the World Time Trial Championship in Sicily. Beyond this, there was initially little success for Jan in the early stages of his professional career, with only a smattering of creditable finishes, although he was a National Time Trial champion in 1995. It was not until 1996 Ullrich made his debut in the Tour de France, a year later than he had wished to, but his team had held him back until they considered him ready. In fact, Ullrich’s debut in 1996 came at the expense of a place on the 1996 German Olympic team, which he turned down in order to take up the unique challenge of le Tour.

Ullrich achieved a remarkable second place in his first tour, finishing as runner-up to his teammate Bjarne Riis, who would eventually admit doping during the race and be removed, then re-instated (with caveat) as the race winner. Ullrich rode a remarkable final individual time trial to finish only 1 minute 41 seconds adrift of Riis, prompting Miguel Indurain to hail him as a future winner of the race in light of the his close proximity to the winner, whom he had been riding in support of. Ullrich dismissed suggestions that had he not been riding to assist Riis he might have won the race at his first attempt, referring to his teammate as an inspiration to the team.

Regardless, Ullrich rendered this debate futile at the very next attempt. In great form coming into the 1997 Tour, he again performed well riding in support of Riis but on stage 10, with Riis dropping back and Marco Pantani and Richard Virenque setting the pace, Ullrich dropped back to the teamcar and requested permission to go on the offensive. Given the green light, Ullrich returned to the leading group, won the stage, and went on to win the title, the first German and, at 23, one of the youngest to achieve the feat. He was 1997’s “sports person of the year” in Germany. However, at 23, Ullrich had already reached the pinnacle of his career as far as this event was concerned.

Ullrich was unable to retain his title in the 1998 Tour which was won by Marco Pantani, a victory underpinned in the mountain stages. Ullrich competed manfully, leading at one stage, and eventually finishing second once again after a victory in the 20km time trial final stage, but this underwhelming tour became known as the “Tour de Dopage” following the murky myriad of allegations and admissions that would follow. Before the 1999 event could roll around, Ullrich did some rolling around of his own during the Deutschland Tour after colliding with Udo Bölts, with whose name I will avoid a terrible joke, and suffered a knee injury severe enough to rule him out of le Tour.

Lance Armstrong stormed to the first of seven victories, and Ullrich recuperated unaware that he was about to learn the art of smiling politely from slightly lower down the podium over a sustained period. Jan targeted his comeback upon the World Time Trial Championship towards the end of 1999, and prepared by competing in the Vuelta a España. He won them both, a familiar final stage time trial victory securing his second major tour before sprinting to victory in Treviso over the likes of Chris Boardman two weeks later.

Ullrich was back in the game, and the 2000 Tour de France was highly anticipated, pitting Armstrong against Pantani and a seemingly rejuvenated Ullrich. However, Armstrong was showing the kind of power that delivers seven consecutive titles and proved too strong, beating Ullrich into a familiar second place. It was the same story in 2001, Armstrong even waiting for Ullrich to recover after a crash, and then beating him into.... yes, second place prompting, according to Ullrich, a bout of depression.

It would be easy to paint this as a story of an unrelenting view of Lance Armstrong’s backside for Jan Ullrich, but away from le Tour, the German was still demonstrating his talent in the saddle. In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Ullrich took gold in the road race, and silver in the time trial, the silver medal pushing Armstrong into the bronze position. However, post 2001, it all started to go a little bit wrong. In the lead up to the 2002 Tour de France, where Ullrich was expected to compete despite a knee injury, the German ill-advisedly had one too many Moosbacher’s before getting behind the wheel of his Audi and was pulled over by the Schutzpolizei, who almost certainly conformed to some more lazy stereotypes. His licence was revoked, but if this was a peek through a crack in the door into Ullrich’s state at the time, the door was kicked open and nailed to the wall within weeks, the German testing positive for amphetamine and copping a six month ban. This was a minimum suspension after Ullrich’s defence that he had taken ecstacy laced with amphetamine, and thus was not seeking to enhance his performance, was accepted by the disciplinary committee. Team Telekom gave him the heave-ho regardless.

Following the ban, Ullrich joined Team Coast, who promptly went south with financial issues, and Ullrich found himself a part of Team Bianchi and was back competing in March 2003. He was back for the Tour de France, but was no longer a front runner. Despite this, he became in an almighty tug-of-war for the yellow jersey with familiar foe Armstrong, culminating in a remarkable display of sportsmanship from Ullrich in the mountains after Armstrong came a cropper after tangling with a spectator’s baseball cap. Remembering Armstrong’s largesse in 2001, Ullrich waited for his rival to recover, but the seconds he sacrificed would prove decisive and, when Ullrich crashed himself in the final time trial, he was destined for the runners-up spot once again. Ullrich’s benevolence did not go unrecognised – one suspects he would not have traded a second title for some kind words from Dan Boyle of the Institute for International Sport but, essentially, that is what he did. He did nail a second German “sportsperson of the year” award though.

By the time the 2004 Tour arrived, Ullrich had left a rather miffed Team Bianchi, and returned to his former team, now going by the name of T-Mobile. Having won the Tour de Suisse, he was again in contention at various times during the le Tour, but finished outside the top 2 for the first time, almost nine minutes behind Armstrong in fourth place. The following year, he was back on the podium in third, a creditable effort after a car accident the day before the event and another tumble in the mountains.

With Armstrong retired, Ullrich fancied his chances in the 2006 Tour de France, and showed good form in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de Suisse, winning the latter for a second time on the final stage. However, though he would make it to France, he would not get to compete in the event. One day before the start, Operación Puerto caught up with him; Ullrich was implicated in the investigation into sports doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and suspended from competing. Ullrich disputed the allegations, but the die was cast and, during the event, Ullrich was sawn-off by Telekom/T-Mobile for a second time. This displeased the German still further, taking issue with the communication of the news through his lawyers although one might reasonably have assumed it might be a reasonable place to get hold of him.

Machinations surrounding Ullrich’s guilt continued through to the October of 2006, when a Spanish court announced no charges would be filed. Ullrich wasn’t having any of it though, and the following February announced his retirement from the sport, stating: “Today, I'm ending my career as a professional cyclist. I never once cheated as a cyclist.” Following an investigation by the IOC, Ullrich was allowed to keep his gold medal due to the absence of solid evidence of his guilt. Following in the footsteps of, well, almost every other retired cyclist of note, Ullrich launched his own range of bicycles. 

Despite his acquittal of sorts, the rumours surrounding Ullrich have refused to go away. The German was talented cyclist without any shadow of a doubt, a competitor of outstanding resilience and resolve for sure, and a sportsman of some integrity without question, but the popular theory is that he was also not an honest competitor for at least part of his career. DNA evidence collected from Ullrich’s home whilst he was honeymooning matched “without doubt” nine bags of blood found at Eufemiano Fuentes’ office and the correlation of his career “with endemic drug use in the peloton” is food for thought for even the credulous mind.

First was first, second was second, but where does history leave Jan Ullrich? Probably nowhere.



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