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Tour de France

‘Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was’: The showdown on Luz-Ardiden and the 2003 Tour de France

To mark Ullrich's 49th birthday, author Daniel Friebe shares a book extract about the German's best and last chance to win the yellow jersey.

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Friday is the 49th birthday of German ex-pro Jan Ullrich.

In an extract from Daniel Friebe’s Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was, we take a look at one of Ullrich’s most dramatic chapters in his long story across the Tour de France.

The scene is deep in the 2003 Tour. After winning a key individual time trial, Ullrich looked to be on the same winning form that made him a superstar in Germany when he won the 1997 yellow jersey.

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Instead of rattling off a string of Tour victories, Ullrich was derailed by a long list of personal demons and ran straight into Lance Armstrong.

The pair became fierce rivals on the road despite sharing similar upbringings. One in Texas, and another a child from behind the Iron Curtain. The pair was almost mystically attached at the hip as they fought for dominance at the top of world cycling in the most controversial era of Tour de France history.

In this extract, Friebe examines the preamble of the battle on the slopes of Luz-Ardiden. The twisting switchbacks high in the Pyrénées were the pinnacle of the rivalry. Just when it looked like Ullrich might finally win, fate twisted the knife one more time.

For those who remember, Luz-Ardiden was the stage when Armstrong tangled up his handlebar with a fan’s musette on the side of the road and crashed. Ullrich and former teammate Tyler Hamilton later waved down the bunch to wait as Armstrong desperately chased back.

Then Armstrong attacked, ending Ullrich’s best and perhaps last chance to win another yellow jersey.

Ullrich swerves to avoid the famous musette mishap on Luz-Ardiden. (Photo: BERNARD PAPON/AFP via Getty Images)

From the pages of Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was

For its final day in the Pyrenees – the last mountain stage in what some pundits were calling the most thrilling edition in memory – the Tour would be blessed with a grandiose setting on its journey from Bagnères-de-Bigorre to Luz-Ardiden.

There were six kilometers to go to the summit of the Col du Tourmalet and 42 to the finish line when Ullrich kicked. Armstrong followed for a few seconds then let go, as had Vinokourov. Suddenly everything Ullrich had done the previous day made sense: he had let Vinokourov cook himself in the sun while marinating Armstrong for the last supper. Now he stuck a fork in the American and would soon be licking the plate.

Only that’s not quite what happened. The gap grew to 10 seconds, peaked at 12, then Armstrong slowly, coolly clawed his way back. By the end of the descent, at the foot of the final climb, even Vinokourov would be back with them.

Why had Ullrich made such an early move? Rudy Pevenage couldn’t work it out; the plan he had laid out in the morning was that they would wait until the last climb. Félix García Casas wondered whether something had changed, for on the approach to the Tourmalet Pevenage had called him back to the team car and handed him a paper note. “Give it to Jan and don’t let anyone see,” Pevenage said.

Minutes later, Ullrich was attacking and García Casas was “flipping out, because that wasn’t the plan.” Indeed, according to Ullrich, the initiative had come from him, only him, and had been an attempt to give Armstrong a dose of his own mind medicine. “I wanted to show him that I could hurt him,” he said later.

Johan Bruyneel remembers Ullrich trying again on the way down the Tourmalet. “Lance was getting a gel or something from the car at the time and he just put his head inside the window and said, ‘Well, that’s stupid . . .'”

For years, the specter of what Ullrich could theoretically achieve had teased the best out of Armstrong without ever making him draw from that crimson, flaming pool of fuck-you determination that he could access when faced with adversaries that were also antagonists – chumps and punks like Iban Mayo or Marco Pantani.

It was an impulse that had its roots in Armstrong’s childhood, though where exactly, Armstrong tells me he doesn’t understand. He has also never really dwelled on why, given that they were both the sons of abusive or absent fathers, raised by devoted single mothers, Jan Ullrich turned out so different.

“I’m sure the whole single-parent thing is somewhere, has some influence on my story . . . I mean it must have been part of my make-up early on, because I was born to somebody that I had no contact with, was raised for ten years by someone who I ended up really not caring for or having any contact with, so a true critic or cynic would say that when I attacked I was thinking, OK, Fuck Terry Armstrong! Fuck Eddie Gunderson! But that stuff never even crossed my mind. Did it, though, from those primitive years into middle school and high school, was it forming me? I’m sure. But I don’t think Jan ever leaned over his bike and said, ‘I’m going to show my dad, the guy who walked out on me.’ Or maybe he did, but I had my own little fictitious rivalries to rile me up.”

A day or two before what was now clearly turning into the decisive stage, one of Armstrong’s teammates had seen a quote from Pevenage to the effect that Ullrich taking the jersey off Armstrong was only a matter a time. The U.S. Postal rider had shown it to Armstrong, who had read it and snarled back, “They will never have that jersey.”

Click here to buy “Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was,” by Daniel Friebe.

Ullrich exasperated at the line after missing a chance to secure the yellow jersey in 2003. (Photo: PAOLO COCCO/AFP via Getty Images)

Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was by Daniel Friebe is available to order now in hardback, E-book, and audio.