The team sponsored by T-Mobile and Deutsche Telekom had its origins in 1988

By John Wilcockson

Glory days: With Riis and Ullrich, Telekom dominated the Tour in 1996 and '97.
Glory days: With Riis and Ullrich, Telekom dominated the Tour in 1996 and ’97.

Photo: Agence France Presse (file photo)

Hamid Akhavan, the CEO of T-Mobile International, is probably glad that the name of his company won’t continue to be trashed by the German media, which has made dope-tainted cycling its principal target over the past 18 months. This 46-year-old Iranian, who has held the top position at T-Mobile for less than a year, was previously the German company’s chief technology officer, with degrees from the California and Massachusetts Institutes of Technology. Akhavan is carving out a name for himself in the world of wireless technology but, at least in the sports world, he will be remembered as the man who ended almost two decades of a German cycling dynasty sponsored by Deutsche Telekom (and its T-Mobile brand).

Let’s go back to 1988, when professional cycling was very different from what it is today. Especially in Germany. For sure, there was a bustling six-day track scene in the winter velodromes, but most of the best German road cyclists were amateurs living beyond the Berlin Wall. The Tour of Germany hadn’t been held for six years, the Hamburg Classic didn’t exist, and the country’s only international pro race, Frankfurt’s Rund um den Heninger Turm, hadn’t been won by a home rider since German legend Rudi Altig took it in 1970.

And, oh, yeah, there were no pro cycling teams in Germany in 1988.

But German cycling suddenly got a (very small) boost. The city of Stuttgart had just been picked to host the 1991 world road championships and wanted to become more involved in the sport. At the same time, Dutch cycling legend Hennie Kuiper (the 1975 world champ) was retiring at age 39. He hooked up with Stuttgart city officials and, with help from his friend Eddy Merckx (who supplied the bicycles) and German bike clothing company Gonso, Kuiper created the Stuttgart-Merckx-Gonso racing team.

Telekom/T-Mobile stars and their major victories
Erik ZabelParis-Tours (1994, 2002, 2003)Milan-San Remo (1997, 1998, 2000, 2001)Amstel Gold Race (2000)Hamburg Cyclassics (2001)Tour de France green jersey (1996-2001)Bjarne RiisTour de France (1996)Amstel Gold Race (1997)Udo BöltsDauphiné Libéré (1997)Jan UllrichTour de France (1997)Hamburg Cyclassics (1997)Vuelta a España (1999)Tour of Switzerland (2003, 2005)Andreas KlödenParis-Nice (2000)Alexander VinokourovDeutschland Tour (2001)Paris-Nice (2002, 2003)Tour of Switzerland (2003)Amstel Gold Race (2003)Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2005)Steffen WesemannTour of Flanders (2004)Markus BurghardtGhent-Wevelgem (2007)

In its first season, 1989, the team mainly comprised of young first-year pros, with nine German riders (including Udo Bölts), two Dutchmen, one Austrian and an Australian (Dean Woods). Bölts would stay for 14 years with the team that became Stuttgart-Mercedes-Merckx-Puma in 1990 and then Telekom-Mercedes-Merckx-Puma in 1991. Kuiper continued as directeur sportif in that first season with Telekom, the state-owned telecommunications company, whose added sponsorship enabled the team to expand to 21 riders, including big-name signings Urs Freuler of Switzerland and the Dutchmen Gerard Veldscholten and Ad Wijnands. The team had moderate success, but was still a small player in the European peloton.

That started to change in 1992, when Kuiper left (and became assistant team director at Motorola). He was replaced by Walter Godefroot, the former Belgian racer who had been running the Weinmann team for several seasons. Godefroot brought with him three Belgians as assistant directors and added some successful riders, including Belgian sprinter Etienne De Wilde and French classics rider Marc Madiot. But upward changes in the Telekom team’s fortunes didn’t really began until 1993, with the signing of a budding rookie German sprinter Erik Zabel — who had taken the field sprint for fourth place in the ’92 Barcelona Olympics and won two stages of eastern Europe’s then prestigious Peace Race.

While Zabel won a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico in his rookie year, another of his former East German teammates, Jan Ullrich, was still riding in the amateur ranks — and at age 19 won the world amateur road championship in Oslo. Ullrich joined Zabel at Telekom as a stagiaire in September 1994. The two young German riders were the catalysts for a big turnaround in fortunes, not only for the sponsor but also for German cycling. Zabel won nine races in 1994, the most important of which were the Paris-Tours classic and four stages of the Tour de l’Avenir. Both of those events were organized by the Tour de France people, and Zabel’s victories were a big factor in Team Telekom getting a wild-card invitation to the 1995 Tour de France.

Telekom didn’t have a GC candidate and the team was only 14th best in the team time trial stage, but Zabel then went on a tear, placing second at Le Havre, third at Dunkirk, and then first at Charleroi — beating French legend Laurent Jalabert in a technical uphill finish. Zabel won again at Bordeaux. Those performances established Telekom as a team to watch, and the German squad became a GC contender in 1996 when it recruited the previous year’s third-place Tour finisher Bjarne Riis of Denmark from Gewiss-Ballan, while Zabel would go on to dominate the Tour’s green jersey competition.

Team manager Godefroot wasn’t expecting much from the newly signed Ullrich, who placed 21st in his first major stage race, the 1995 Tour of Switzerland, and 19th at the same race a year later. But because of his impressive team riding in the mountain stages, and his known time trialing ability, Ullrich was slotted into Telekom’s Tour de France team. The rest, of course, is history: Ullrich came in second overall to teammate Riis, and the following year, at age 23, he dominated the race to become the first German ever to win the Tour.

The impact of Ullrich’s Tour victory was immense. He was voted Germany’s Sportsman of the Year, triggering a huge rise in German interest in professional cycling. It was especially significant that he was the leader of a German team sponsored by the country’s telecommunications giant, which was partly owned by the German government. The continuing success of Ullrich (who never finished worse than fourth at the Tour) and Zabel (who won Milan-San Remo four times in addition to his six consecutive Tour green jerseys) only cemented the Germans’ love affair with cycling.

Zabel and Ullrich in happier times.
Zabel and Ullrich in happier times.

Photo: Agence France Presse (file photo)

By 2006, rather than the zero pro teams that existed in 1988, Germany boasted 11 pro cycling teams headed by UCI ProTour squads Gerolsteiner and T-Mobile. And the country’s two ProTour events, the Deutschland Tour and Hamburg Cyclassics, were both roaring successes. And nearly all of this success could be attributed to Ullrich, Zabel and team Telekom/T-Mobile.

No wonder there was such a furor, starting in late-May 2006, when Ullrich was alleged to be mixed up in the Operación Puerto blood-doping ring, followed by his exclusion from the Tour de France and subsequent dismissal by T-Mobile. It was as if the two pillars of German sport (Ullrich and Team T-Mobile) had started to collapse. The foundations became even shakier when Ullrich retired in February this year, followed by his DNA being linked to blood bags from the office of Puerto ringleader Eufemiano Fuentes. That fact destroyed the German media’s belief in cycling, and when the cyclone of doping admissions from seven former Telekom riders (including Bölts, Zabel and Riis) hit the tabloids and TV networks in May and June the whole country felt betrayed. The last straw came with the dismissal of the two sports doctor who had overseen the medical program at Team Telekom in the 1990s, the tell-all stories of doping in pro cycling by Jörg Jaksche, and Patrik Sinkewitz’s steroids positive and his doping revelations.

This constant blitz of bad news, all of it connected to the national institution of Deutsche Telekom, made the situation impossible for Akhavan as he assumed the role of T-Mobile’s new CEO. He really had no choice but to cancel his company’s 12-million-euro (almost $18 million) annual sponsorship of the pro cycling team — even though its general manager Bob Stapleton, his new management team, his great young riders and their stringent anti-doping program were heralding a new, clean start for the sport in Germany.

The T-Mobile dynasty has ended, but perhaps it’s just as well that Stapleton’s youthful squad will now take the High Road to restore the public’s (and maybe the German media’s) belief in the beautiful sport of cycling.

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