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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’

Hero to zero

The next day, on stage 16, Ullrich gritted his teeth – the French TV cameras showed it, literally – and set about trying to make up some of the time he’d lost. But Pantani, now in yellow, matched him pedal stroke for pedal stroke, and they arrived in Albertville together, just the two of them, where Ullrich sprinted to the stage victory. The race, however, was already over. Pantani’s almost six-minute buffer was too much, even for Ullrich.

The Tour can do that to people – what it gives one year, it takes away the next. Indurain had been superseded by Riis, who was superseded by Ullrich, and then it was Ullrich who had to give way in 1998 to Pantani, who never won the Tour again and died of a cocaine overdose in 2004. Like the Italian, Ullrich had his demons. In June 2002, while suffering from a knee injury, he tested positive in an out-of-competition test for amphetamines – claimed to have been taken recreationally. That came just a month after Ullrich had been banned from driving after crashing his Porsche in a drink-driving incident.

Having professed his horror at his own behaviour, fans and the media appeared willing to forgive him. What seemed less forgivable, perversely, was his propensity to gain weight during the off-season, only for him to arrive at the Tour each July in top condition and at fighting weight. ‘How good could he have been if only he’d been able to conduct himself more professionally?’ they cried. It was an argument levelled at him his whole career.

Having failed to defend his Tour title in 1998, when he finished second to Pantani, Ullrich finished second another three times to Armstrong between 1999 and 2005. He was in real danger of being forgotten as ‘Der Kaiser’, and becoming ‘The Eternal Second’, the French media’s nickname for Raymond Poulidor, who in fact only finished second at the Tour three times in total in the 1960s and 70s. As for the man who most often kept him in the shadow, Ullrich says of Armstrong, ‘Our relationship was pretty much non-existent. We didn’t talk much or really have any contact at all. But when we did, it was always respectful. Lance always said I was his biggest threat and I always treated my rivals equally respectfully.’ And when Armstrong retired after his seventh Tour victory in 2005, the way looked clear for Ullrich to return to winning ways.

Then Operación Puerto happened. Suddenly, the sport was plunged into as much – if not more – chaos as it had been in 1998. A Spanish doping investigation into ‘sports doctor’ Eufemiano Fuentes had cited various cycling star names, including Ullrich and the other favourite for that year’s Tour, Ivan Basso. Their teams were forced to pull them out of the race before it had even started, and while Basso eventually made a comeback after serving a two-year ban for his ‘intent to dope’ – and is still racing today with Tinkoff-Saxo – it spelled the end of the road for Ullrich. He announced his retirement in February 2007, still adamantly denying that he had ever doped.

Jan Ullrich rapha

In June 2013, five months after Armstrong’s doping confession on Oprah, Ullrich felt it was the right time to admit his doping involvement with Fuentes, having already been found guilty of doping in February 2012, when he was stripped of all results from May 2005, which included his third place at that year’s Tour de France. Armstrong had beaten Ullrich again – albeit in the ‘race’ to be first to admit that they’d doped. The stress, and possibly the guilt, in the years since his retirement led to Ullrich being diagnosed with ‘burn-out syndrome’ in 2010, and he spent the next few years trying to recover. ‘I managed to pull myself out of that difficult situation, with the help of my family. I’m proud of that,’ he says. Now he’s come out the other side, and a retroactive two-year ban (imposed in spite of his being already retired) ended in 2013. Ullrich is philosophical about the rights and wrongs of what he’s done, even if what he did, and when, remains hazy.

‘I’d certainly do some things differently,’ he admits. ‘Of course it’s easy to talk about mistakes you’ve made in the past, because, with hindsight, you can see them as mistakes. But the individual athlete didn’t play a major role back then. It was the whole system around you: the teams and the people you had contact with. It would have taken a lot to have gone against the grain, and to most likely have sacrificed your own success as a result.’ Ullrich is contrite, and remains humble, which appears to be enough to have gained him some forgiveness in Germany. Certainly no one has tried to take his 1997 Tour title away from him, just as Riis, who admitted in 2007 to having doped, has been allowed to keep his 1996 title.

‘I mean, it’s never good for the sport if you just cross out several years of victories as if they didn’t happen,’ Ullrich says of Armstrong’s seven docked Tour wins. But there is no talk of Ullrich being handed the titles for the three years he finished second to the American, which would have made the German a four-time Tour winner. Until the time comes when Ullrich says more, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions.

Looking ahead

As a result of further doping cases in German cycling, national broadcaster ARD ceased coverage of the Tour after 2011. But now, thanks to the perception that the sport has gone some way to cleaning up its act, the world’s biggest race will be back on German television in 2015. ‘Now that ARD has decided to show the Tour again, it’s great for the sport,’ Ullrich says. ‘It will be back in the public eye and hopefully lots of people will tune in again. German cycling will benefit from it, I’m 100 per cent sure.’

Jan Ullrich interview

Currently, Germany doesn’t boast any riders who look like they could win the Tour any time soon, but instead the nation’s strength in depth of top-notch sprinters and one-day specialists – headed by Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb – bodes well for the future. And Ullrich doesn’t rule out returning to German TV screens himself, but for the moment he knows that his relationship with German cycling fans is still a complex one, so don’t expect to see him behind a microphone when the Tour rolls out from Utrecht this year.

‘I talked to the people involved and we agreed to leave the past behind,’ Ullrich says. ‘But the directors decided to play it safe for this year and they don’t want to make any mistakes. After everything that happened, I’m still a polarising person and they don’t want to offend anyone. I get that. Maybe we can work together in the future.’

Ullrich is well aware that more time may need to pass before he is pardoned for past transgressions, but he remains hopeful that the cycling community will come to see him in a more forgiving light. ‘People say to me, “You haven’t changed much. You’ve always been yourself, during both the good times and when everything seemed to be crumbling around you.” I really hope people will remember me like that and say, “Ulle always stayed true to himself and was always down to earth.” I’d like that.’

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