Jan Ullrich wears the face of a man who’s travelled the world, and seen it all.
In many ways, he has. On the saddle of his bike he’s crossed continents, negotiated national borders, and, one summer in 1997, stood triumphantly on the Champs Elysees after winning the greatest two-wheeled race of them all.
Ullrich is in Dubai examining the brand new altitude chamber at the Quay Healthclub, at the Madinat Jumeirah. And while suitably impressed with the facilities, it didn’t take a simulated trip to 2,000 metres above sea level – an altitude Ullrich has visited throughout his cycling career – to analyse the career of his great rival, Lance Armstrong.
“He made me a better rider, for sure,” explains the 1997 Tour de France winner. “But I also read an interview with him once where he said that I pushed him to train harder, and improve.”
Whatever focus or motivation Armstrong needed, it worked. Seven consecutive victories on the Tour de France make him the most successful cyclist of all time.
Ullrich finished runner-up to Armstrong on five occasions, but did he ever find himself dreaming of a day when Armstrong wouldn’t be leading the peloton, constantly relegating Ullrich to the second-placed podium stand under the watchful gaze of the Arc de Triomphe?
“No, not at all. Firstly, you have to take on whatever is in front of you, and in my case that was Lance Armstrong. He was an incredible competitor, but people have to realise, he did a huge amount for our sport. So although I was usually behind him, the sport that we all love benefited from his presence.”
Ullrich’s Tour de France and cycling career were thrown into jeopardy in 2006, when in the weeks before the biggest race on the calendar was due to start, he was named in a doping scandal, called Operacion Puerto.
Operation Mountain Pass, as it was known in English, was the code name of a Spanish Police operation against the doping network of Doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, which resulted in a scandal that involved several big cyclists of the year.
Alberto Contador, Ruben Plaza, Eladio Jimenez, Allan Davis and several others were also named, but removed from the case five days before the Tour started. Ullrich had no such reprieve, and a day before the Tour was due to start, he was suspended from the race.
Ullrich maintains that he had nothing to do with Dr. Fuentes, and having never tested positive, should have been allowed to compete in the race that year. The fact that Armstrong had retired after winning the race the previous year made it all the more difficult for Ullrich to swallow the decision.
“I was in the best shape of my life, my training had gone perfectly, I had trained amazingly hard and I was really looking forward to competing. To have that taken away from me… I was devastated. However, it was five years ago now, and time heals things. I am no longer angry about what happened.”
Ullrich’s case – and many more before and since – highlighted the discrepancies that exist in anti-doping controls in cycling. “The system is a lot better than it was, and there’s less doping in the sport than there was say twenty years ago” he admits.
“But there’s still issues that exist. For example, somebody could have a particular cup of coffee in the morning, and without knowing it they’ve done something they shouldn’t have, and could end up testing positive.”
Ullrich was dismissed from the T-Mobile team shortly after the Operacion Puerto scandal, and announced his retirement from professional cycling seven months later, despite no charges being filed against him.
And while he may have exited the sport he loves under a cloud, the early days provided nothing but sunshine, particularly late July 1997, when, at the age of 23, he became the fourth-youngest winner of the Tour since 1947, and first German to do so.
Ullrich’s simultaneous victories in both the General Classification category and the Young Riders category marked the first time the same rider had won both categories in the same Tour since Laurent Fignon in 1983. “It was the longest three weeks of my life!” he says, with a big grin. “The race challenges you in a way that nothing else ever could.”
The Tour de France isn’t the only glittering prize sitting in Ullrich’s trophy cabinet – an Olympic gold is beside it, after Ullrich returned from Sydney 2000 the Olympic road race champion.
“The Tour victory was three weeks of extreme competition, which took every ounce of my strength. The Olympic win was a one-day event, which also required huge commitment, and both were special moments for me. But winning the Tour de France means you go down in history.”
Nowadays, the current generation of riders keep Ullrich as interested in the sport as he was when he competed – albeit from the comfort of his couch, rather than on a 13cm x 8cm saddle at the top of the French Pyrenees.
“The likes of the Schleck brothers, and Cadel Evans, are the guys who I really admire today. I still have a huge interest in the sport, it was my entire life for so long that it’s not something you just forget about. I still watch cycling all the time.”
While his life nowadays may no longer be measured in stages, time trials and yellow jerseys, for Ullrich, it’s clear that the fires still burn bright. And with the younger generation, led by the likes of Mark Cavendish, Andy Schleck and Pierre Roland leading the charge, Ullrich is happy to take a back seat and allow them to take the pain.
Climbing the mountain
1993 Amateur World Race Cycling Champion
1995 German National Time Trial Champion, 2nd place Tour du Limousin
1996 2nd place Tour de France
Reaching the summit
1997 Tour de France winner, German National Road Race Champion
1998 2nd place Tour de France, winner of three stages
1999 World Time Trial Champion, Vuelta a Espana Champion
2000 Olympic Games gold medal – road race, Olympic games silver medal – Individual time trial, 2nd place Tour de France
2001 World Time Trial Champion, National Road Race Champion, 2nd place Tour de France
2003 2nd Place Tour de France
2004 Tour de Suisse Champions, 4th place Tour de France
2005 3rd place Tour de France, 3rd place Tour de Suisse
2006 Tour de Suisse Champion
2006 Suspended from Tour de France amid doping allegations, fired by T-Mobile team
2007 Announces retirement Taking a back seat: Ullrich
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