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Analysis: So where now, T-Mobile?

On Thursday T-Mobile took back the lead in the overall team competition of the Tour and Jan Ullrich took back 36 seconds from Mickael Rasmussen, putting himself in a good position to claim the third podium spot in the final time trial on Saturday. Victory in the team competition and third overall, results most teams would be very pleased with at the end of the Tour. Not so T-Mobile. “We’re disappointed that we didn’t get the yellow jersey,” says new team director, former star sprinter Olaf Ludwig. “That was clearly our goal. We wanted to isolate Lance, which we managed to do a few times.

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By Sebastian Moll, Special to VeloNews

On Thursday T-Mobile took back the lead in the overall team competition of the Tour and Jan Ullrich took back 36 seconds from Mickael Rasmussen, putting himself in a good position to claim the third podium spot in the final time trial on Saturday.

Victory in the team competition and third overall, results most teams would be very pleased with at the end of the Tour. Not so T-Mobile.

“We’re disappointed that we didn’t get the yellow jersey,” says new team director, former star sprinter Olaf Ludwig. “That was clearly our goal. We wanted to isolate Lance, which we managed to do a few times. The fact that he was strong enough even on his own – we will just have to accept.” Once again T-Mobile has not reached its main objective: to win the Tour, a feat the team has been unable to accomplish since it’s successive wins in 1996 and’97. Furthermore, as the team tries to come to grips with this failure and search for the reasons, it seems to be falling apart even before it is reaching Paris.

On Tuesday, just after Rest Day No. 2 in Pau, Alexandre Vinokourov declared his intention to leave the team at season’s end.

“Jan is the number one rider on a German team, in the eyes of the sponsor and of the media,” he said. “The same would be true for me on a Kazakh team. I want to find a team that is 100 percent behind me.” Later, it was learned that Matthias Kessler, a strong support rider for Ullrich and a strong rider in the Ardennes classics, has shown strong interest in Team Gerolsteiner. Erik Zabel, who arrived at the Tour this week as a TV commentator, has not yet re-signed his contract with T-Mobile and is rumored to be talking to Phonak. Evidently Zabel, like Vinokourov, sees no place for himself beside Jan Ullrich and does not want to end his career without another shot at the Green Jersey. The fear of Jan Ullrich taking even more control of the team after Walter Godefroot resigns at the end of the year, seems justified. Ullrich’s personal coach Rudy Pevenage, who, because of his feud with Godefroot over Ullrich currently has no contract with the team, will be reinstated as a directeur sportif next year.

Already, Pevenage is voicing demands. “The team has hired Patrick Sinkewitz and Michael Rogers,” Pevenage says. “They will be good team riders for the Tour, but if we want Jan to win, we need another rider of that caliber.” Despite the fact, that Ullrich’s best years have to be behind him, T-Mobile appears intent on building it’s future on him. It’s a concession to German media and sponsor pressures, Ludwig admits. Realistic or not, the goal to win a Tour with Ullrich has always been imposed on the team and continues to be so, Ludwig said in an interview with the German news-website Spiegel Online. “Alexandre Vinokourov came in third in the Tour,” Ludwig said. “No one cared. Klöden came in second, nobody cared, because Ullrich was fourth. Everyone wants Jan, Jan, Jan. Jan has to live with that and we have to live with that.” Ullrich is the face of cycling in Germany and nothing less than a Tour victory by him is accepted.

“If we would say, our goal is to come in fifth, people would laugh at us,” Ludwig said. “The sponsor would call and ask whether we have gone crazy. We had a strong team this year, we did everything we could. But the only thing that really counts is yellow.” At the same time Ludwig acknowledged that it is getting more and more difficult for Ullrich to win the Tour every year.

“He is just not the type of guy who can get out of the saddle and jump away from everyone on a climb, like Ivan Basso or Lance Armstrong,” he said. “That’s the wrong expectation. Jan can’t do that. That’s not his style. He can ride up a mountain in a really high tempo and drop many people, just not Armstrong and Basso.” Ludwig will be taking on a very difficult job next year. He will be forced to build a Tour team around Ullrich and knows that once again there will be immense pressure to win. At the same time he knows that this will be an incredibly difficult enterprise. But Ludwig is prepared to manage the disappointment that almost seems built in to this project. After all, he has been the press liaison for the team prior to his new job for many years. He has explained five second places, a fourth and a likely third place this year by Ullrich to the German public.

Another second or third place, won’t make much of a difference to him.