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Analysis: The Ullrich era is ending – can Klöden be the next German hero?

For eight long years, Germans have hoped that Jan Ullrich would one again win the Tour de France. His 1997 Tour de France victory electrified the nation and made cycling enthusiasts of his countrymen. After last weekend, however, it is finally beginning to dawn on Germans that there may never be a second victory. The weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel writes that Ullrich has spent his best years battling a better rider, a unique man: “For sure Ullrich will continue to hold on to his dream of winning the Tour again for another year. He has announced that he will continue to fight – as he has

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By Sebastian Moll, Special to VeloNews

For eight long years, Germans have hoped that Jan Ullrich would one again win the Tour de France. His 1997 Tour de France victory electrified the nation and made cycling enthusiasts of his countrymen.

After last weekend, however, it is finally beginning to dawn on Germans that there may never be a second victory.

The weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel writes that Ullrich has spent his best years battling a better rider, a unique man: “For sure Ullrich will continue to hold on to his dream of winning the Tour again for another year. He has announced that he will continue to fight – as he has every year since 1999. After next year, his contract will run out and who knows if he will get a new one, if he doesn’t fulfill his dream. In any case, his main rivals are ready: One is called Basso. One is called time.”

A commentator on Der Spiegel’s website went a step further, suggesting that it may have been delusional to even consider Ullrich a contender this year: “Maybe just no one dared to say it.” The German media and fans had been very much in love with their dreams of an Ullrich comeback, and were perhaps so blinded by that love that they couldn’t see their dreams were no longer realistic.

Certainly Ullrich and his team think they have done all they could. “We did everything right,” says Rudy Pevenage. Adds Ullrich: “There was nothing else we could have done.” Teammate Andreas Klöden agrees: “I couldn’t possibly think of what we could have done differently.” Tried everything, did everything right, lost anyway. Couldn’t that have been foreseen?

Now that Germany seems to be slowly parting with Ullrich as their cycling hero, Klöden is the man in whom they can place their faith. A close and loyal friend to Ullrich, he accepts the role with reluctance.

“Well, yes, the dream of winning the Tour is in the back of my mind,” he says, adding that he hopes to be “one of the riders to play a role in the post-Armstrong era.”

“I had huge problems in my preparation this year,” he says. “Still I came to the Tour in decent shape.”

For now, however, his “big brother,” as Ullrich as been called, will be around for another year. And Klöden would never revolt against his big brother.

Klöden agrees with CSC’s Ivan Basso that the only truly invincible cyclist is Lance Armstrong; everyone else, he has a shot at. If everything goes smoothly, Klöden thinks, he could be a contender.

This is the same “if” that has dogged Ullrich’s career since 1997. But Germans have finally grown weary of waiting for the perfect year, the year in which nothing goes wrong. They are no longer waiting. And it is doubtful that they will have the same sort of patience with Klöden that they did with Ullrich.

Ullrich won German fans over with his rides in 1996 and 1997. For Klöden, it will be much tougher to become the nation’s darling. The fans are disappointed and wounded by Ullrich’s failure to deliver. It will take a lot to open their hearts again.