By Andrew Hood
Jan Ullrich could walk down just about any street in America unrecognized. The 28-year-old German with distinctive red hair doesn’t have that luxury in his home country.
More than 50 fans cheered Ullrich early Saturday afternoon as he pulled up in front of the posh Hamburg Park Hyatt for the 6th Annual HEW Cyclassics bike race.
Dressed in a leather coat, jeans and designer shoes, Ullrich patiently signed autographs and posed for pictures. Ullrich is one of Germany’s major sports stars, outranked only by top soccer players and Formula One racer Michael Schumacher.
Ullrich, who lived here in the early 1990s before moving to the Black Forest in southwest Germany, headlines the start list for the seventh leg of the 10-round 2001 World Cup racing series Sunday.
A winner here in 1997 a year before the race officially joined the World Cup, the HEW Cyclassics marks the first major race for Ullrich since he finished second to Lance Armstrong in the 2001 Tour de France. He’s been busy racing in post-Tour criteriums and won a race in Hanover, Germany on Friday.
It will likely be Ullrich’s Telekom teammate Erik Zabel, however, who will be the major challenger for victory here in this bustling port city in northern Germany.
Zabel, fresh off his record sixth consecutive points jersey and two stage wins at the Tour, has never won here.
“This race always come down to a sprint,” Zabel said. “The hills are not steep enough to make a difference. It all comes down to who has the best sprint.”
That’s been the major criticism of the HEW race: it’s long, flat and boring. There are 18 minor climbs on the 251-km (155-mile) course, but none are more than a few hundred feet high. Blink and you might miss the action, as the longest climb is the less than two miles long, though some of the grades are as steep as 16 percent.
Others favorites include world champion Romans Vainsteins (Domo), Leon Van Bon (Mercury), who won here in 1998, Oscar Carmenzind (Lampre-Daikin) and Michele Bartoli (Mapei). Germans Jens Voigt (Credit Agricole) and Sven Teutenberg (Festina) will lead a large national contingent that includes Team Coast and three other second division German teams (Gerolsteiner, Team Cologne and Team Nurnberger).
The race is key for overall World Cup points leader Erik Dekker (Rabobank), who holds a 75-point lead over second-place David Rebellin of Liquigas. Dekker is trying to become the first Dutch rider to win the World Cup and wants to come out of this weekend holding the lead.
“The best for me would be if I leave Hamburg still in the lead because the other races suit me better,” Dekker told Dutch journalists. Hamburg will be a key race for my chances.”
Only two Americans – Fred Rodriguez (Domo) and Bobby Julich (Crédit Agricole) – are scheduled to start. The U.S. Postal Service team is skipping the race while Mercury starts without any American riders on its eight-man squad.
World Cup standings through six events:
1. Erik Dekker (Nl), Rabobank, 219 points; 2. Davide Rebellin (It),Liquigas, 144; 3. Gianluca Bortolami (It), Tacconi Sport, 131; 4. Osca rCarmenzind (Sui), Lampre-Daikin,126; 5. Johan Museeuw (Bel), Domo, 116; 6.Romans Vainstains (Lat), Domo, 116; 7. Francesco Casagrande (It), Fassa Bortolo, 113; 8. Servais Knaven (Nl), Domo, 101; 9. Erik Zabel (Ger),Telekom, 100; 10. Serge Baguet (Bel), Lotto,90.