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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’

Page 2 of 3Jan Ullrich : Rise to the top

Rising to the top

The following year, in 1997, Ullrich was expected – and expected himself – to ride in support of Riis again, to help the Dane make it two in a row. ‘Sure, the pressure was bigger and the expectations higher, but I wasn’t the captain of my team. That was still Bjarne, which took a lot of weight off of my shoulders,’ Ullrich says. But on stage 10, a major day of climbing with a summit finish at the Andorra-Arcalis ski station, Ullrich’s class shone through, too brightly. The German was strong enough on the final climb to ride away from everyone, and he won the stage by more than a minute from Italian climber Marco Pantani and French favourite Richard Virenque. It was enough to give Ullrich the yellow jersey.

In Riis’s autobiography, Riis: Stages Of Light And Dark, he writes, ‘The team’s hierarchy had been decided, as it had been impossible to follow Jan in such form. It was a relief for him, too, as it at last spelled an end to what had seemed like endless speculation. There was no reason for me to show any bitterness when I talked to the press.

‘“Jan was the strongest,” I told them, then added, “and no, it hadn’t been planned. I simply couldn’t keep up with him. I’m pleased that he was able to show how strong he is, and that no one else could follow him. It was great to see, and now I can just be pleased that we’ve been able to keep it in the family.”’ Ullrich enjoyed full support from Riis and the Telekom ‘family’ from there on in, and, less than a fortnight later, Germany could celebrate its first (and still only) Tour winner. At the tender age of 23, it was a life-changing moment for Ullrich.

‘In the weeks following the Tour, I was on the road for most of the time and didn’t really have any time at home. It wasn’t until the beginning of the next year that I really noticed how much things had changed,’ says Ullrich. ‘And in the beginning, it was really great. However, as it is with many things, there were two sides to the story. Suddenly everyone recognised me. I couldn’t set foot outside my house without people wanting to talk to me, take pictures and everything. I’m a pretty calm and introverted person, and I like my privacy, so that was a huge change for me.’

And then came the weight of expectation, as everyone wanted more of the same: ‘The media expected me to perform, as did the people. It took me a while until I learned to handle that pressure.’ Whereas the British cycling boom came thanks to success from multiple riders – including Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Bradley Wiggins on the track, and Nicole Cooke, Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and Wiggins on the road – back in 1997, Ullrich almost single-handedly ‘boomed’ cycling in Germany.

Jan Ullrich portrait

The press nicknamed him ‘Der Kaiser’ – ‘The Emperor’ – just like another of Germany’s other sporting heroes, footballer Franz Beckenbauer. But Ullrich would never reach such heights at the Tour again. First, Pantani showed him a clean pair of heels at the murky 1998 race, and then, from 1999 onwards, it was all about Armstrong. Pantani emerged from that 1998 Tour as a ray of hope after Virenque’s Festina squad had been thrown off the race after a member of the team’s staff, Willy Voet, had been stopped with a car boot-load of drugs, destined for the riders, three days before the start. Despite the gloom that pervaded the first week, which all but ruined its Grand Départ in Dublin, Ullrich and Pantani set about animating the Tour. However, just a year after his Tour win, and just halfway into the race, Ullrich seemed like a spent force.

On stage 15 – a filthy wet and cold day in the Alps – Pantani attacked on the Col du Galibier. Ullrich looked paralysed and spent the rest of the stage in some distress, grinding his pedals around in the vain hope that he could keep Pantani in sight. Riis, who had been left behind, rejoined Ullrich on the climb up to the finish at Les Deux Alpes, doing his best to shepherd his young teammate home. They finished almost nine minutes behind Pantani.

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Page 2 of 3Jan Ullrich : Rise to the top