Jan Ullrich will test his Tour de France credentials in the Tour of Germany beginning Monday.
The German, regarded by many as the rider most capable of denying U.S. Postal’s Lance Armstrong a record sixth Tour de France win in July, has struggled with his form early in the season.
Still, the 30-year-old suggested he was improving with a strong performance in Saturday’s Rund um die Hainleite race in Erfurt, Germany. The 1997 Tour de France winner, entering his first event in five weeks after concentrating on training, said he was satisfied with fifth place in a race won by Austrian Peter Wrolich.
“I wanted to find out where I stood, and it looks pretty good,” said the T-Mobile rider.
T-Mobile sports director Mario Kummer was equally pleased.
“It was a great race from Jan,” Kummer said. “I am very confident for the Tour de France.”
Ullrich has also been reassured by his form during grueling training rides in the French Alps.
“It went well,” he said. “I’m hardly overweight. I think I have enough time before the Tour.”
Poor form and weight problems in the build-up to the Tour are nothing new for Ullrich, who staged a remarkable comeback from a frustrating spell featuring a career-threatening knee injury and a doping ban to finish second to Armstrong in last year’s race.
Ullrich played down his chances in the seven-day Tour of Germany, which starts on Monday in Karlsruhe and ends in Leipzig.
“I want to use one or two stages to find out how strong I am, but I should not be expected to win,” he said. “The only thing for sure is that I won’t finish last.”
The tour, over 1000km through Germany, with a short stretch in Austria, features tough mountain climbs, but the stage Ullrich is really waiting for is the opening time trial. Racing well against the clock has always been one of Ullrich’s strengths and will be vital if he is to trouble Armstrong on the Tour.
Ullrich will face strong opposition from two-time overall World Cup winner Paolo Bettini (Quick Step-Davitamon) of Italy and Spaniard Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (Liberty Seguros), who won the race in 2002.
Also returning to racing in the German tour after an extended absence is Danilo Di Luca (Saeco). Di Luca abruptly ceased competition on the eve of Liège-Bastogne-Liége due to a urine infection.