Germany’s Jan Ullrich said Thursday he is happy to amble along at the back of the peloton in preparation for his main challenge of the year – facing Lance Armstrong during what is bound to be an unmissable Tour de France in July.
Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner who returned to form with another runner-up finish behind Armstrong last year, is taking part in this week’s Circuit de La Sarthe race with no ambitions of winning stages or the race itself.
While 32-year-old Armstrong has increased his training load ahead of the July 3-25 showpiece, during which the American U.S. Postal rider will bid for a record sixth win, a confident Ullrich said he is only too happy to go at his own pace.
“I like this event because it fits in perfectly with my current objectives,” said the German in Evron, France. “There aren’t too many climbs, like on the Tour of the Basque country, so it allows me to get back to racing fitness at a relatively easy pace.”
Ullrich, who several times in the past has been accused of being overweight at the start of the season, looks leaner and fitter than he did at this time last year, when he had just returned from a ban for a positive drugs test and also had contract problems. The 30-year-old, who was voted Germany’s sportsman of the year last year ahead of six-time world Formula One champion Michael Schumacher, also appears to be more relaxed, following the birth of his daughter Sarah Maria a few months ago.
If his return to the former Telekom team (now T-Mobile) – which he left briefly last year for Coast, then Bianchi – has passed off as smoothly as he says, Ullrich should be assured of unstinting support during his three-week battle for the yellow jersey, which could come down to the 15km time trial from Bourg d’Oisans to the summit finish of L’ Alpe d’Huez on July 21.
“I feel as if I’ve never left this team,” Ullrich said. “Theere’s a good atmosphere, and we’ve taken every possible step to try and be successful. We’re lucky to be able to work together to win. I’ve found the pleasure of racing again.”
The only blot on Ullrich’s landscape is the disagreement between T-Mobile team boss Walter Godefroot and the German’s personal coach, Rudy Pevenage, who has been banned from the team car during races.
“There’s no change (in the situation),” said Pevenage, who arrived here at the race late Wednesday and declared that Ullrich is bound to come to the fore when called upon.
“We’re a little behind in our preparations, but not by much,” said Pevenage. “There’s absolutely no reason to worry. Jan is training in favorable circumstances, and with a peloton that is riding fast. And that’s good.”
Ullrich will continue his preparations on Monday when he lines up for the Grand Prix de Cologne before saddling up for the Amstel Gold Race on April 18, the Flèche Wallonne, on April 21, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège four days later.