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Jan Ullrich : Interview

Jan Ullrich interview
Ellis Bacon
24 Sep 2015

Jan Ullrich went from a Tour win in 1997 to a doping ban and vilification. Now he’s ready to emerge from the ‘Armstrong years’

Jan Ullrich is in a relaxed mood. Content to wander the streets of Palma in Mallorca for Cyclist’s photo shoot, he looks healthy and comes across as softly spoken and down to earth, the kind of guy you’d be happy to go for a beer with. As he sits soaking up some Mediterranean sunshine, it’s hard to see any signs of a cycling career that has witnessed triumphs, disappointments, scandals, recriminations and despair.

The young Jan

Jan Ullrich burst onto the cycling scene in 1993 when he won the Amateur World Road Race Championships in Oslo, Norway. At those same championships, the pro race was won by Lance Armstrong, and the two men would become fierce rivals at the Tour de France in the late 1990s until Armstrong’s (first) retirement in 2005. The years before and after would feature very mixed fortunes for both men.

Ullrich was born in Rostock in former East Germany in 1973 and, like so many riders before him, was inspired to take up cycling by a family member, in this case his older brother, Stefan. Their father had left when Jan was six. Aged 13, Ullrich was already considered gifted enough to join the Kinder und Jugendsportschulen – the children’s sports school in East Berlin, where they gave him a decent bike and set about turning him into a cycling superstar.

‘The support we received as athletes was very good,’ Ullrich tells Cyclist. ‘My mother wouldn’t have been able to afford a road bike for me because it was ridiculously expensive, so having one was something very special.’ Closed off from the West, Ullrich and his friends had to find their sporting heroes closer to home. ‘At that time, we were pretty much completely isolated from Western culture and its events, even in cycling. You got some information concerning the Tour de France, but it wasn’t the big cycling event in the GDR [German Democratic Republic]. Our equivalent was the Peace Race,’ he says.

That was a two-week stage race that ran each May from 1948 to 2006, predominantly in Poland, East Germany and former Czechoslovakia. ‘It was the “Tour de France of the East”, so that was where I found my first cycling idols: Olaf Ludwig [winner in 1982 and 1986] and Gustav-Adolf Schur,’ who was the first East German to win the race, in 1955, and who, like Ullrich, was Amateur World Road Race Champion, in 1958 and 1959. Later, says Ullrich, his big cycling hero was Spain’s Miguel Indurain: ‘He was the one rider I always admired.’

As things began to change after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ullrich signed a professional contract for the 1995 season with Telekom, and was quickly promoted to the German team’s Tour de France squad in 1996, aged just 22. Together with Danish team leader and eventual winner Bjarne Riis, Ullrich set about dismantling the hold his hero, Indurain, had had on the Tour since 1991.

‘No one really expected much, including me,’ remembers Ullrich of his first Tour de France. ‘At the beginning, I just rode, taking in every second of it, just trying to enjoy myself.’ But he was the revelation of the race, more than capable of helping Riis in the mountains, and still strong enough after three weeks to win the penultimate stage of the race – a 63.5km time-trial between Bordeaux and Saint-Emilion.

Jan Ullrich coffee

‘Of course, I still admired Indurain, even though he was my rival,’ Ullrich says, ‘but when I managed to beat him in that time-trial… I can’t describe how happy and proud I was. I still remember it as one of my biggest victories. I still think back to that Tour with feelings of joy. It had a huge impact on my whole career.’ Ullrich had finished second overall to his teammate Riis, and was quite rightly being touted as a future Tour winner. Indurain’s reign was over. Ullrich’s all-powerful Telekom team had relegated the Spaniard to 11th place, almost a quarter of an hour down on Riis. Indurain retired at the end of the season, aged 32. He was a five-time Tour winner, and it was time for a new generation to shine.

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