By VeloNews Interactive wire services, Copyright AFP2002
Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour de France winner whose nagging knee problems have left his early season preparations in tatters, says he is hopeful of returning fully fit for this year’s Tour de France.
“If I have no more problems between now and July I’ll be at the Tour start line,” affirmed the 28-year-old German in an interview Friday with French sports daily L’Equipe.
But for many observers, Ullrich’s dream of breaking American Lance Armstrong’s three-year grip on the most prestigious yellow jersey in world cycling is already seriously compromised.
Ullrich, who came second in the world’s biggest bike race for the fourth time in five years last year, felt the first twinges in his right knee while training in South Africa in December.
Although the pain disappeared during the January’s Tour of Qatar, Ullrich has been forced on to undergo physical therapy ever since his return from the Gulf state.
Armstrong meanwhile already looks well en route to a fourth consecutive yellow jersey, a feat which would boost the 30-year-old father of three’s reputation as the greatest big Tour rider of modern times.
In comparison, nearly-man Ullrich – widely considered the only rider capable of upstaging the headstrong Texan – has the odds stacked against him, with a return to serious racing not scheduled until June in the Giro d’Italia, or in the less high-profile Tour of Germany.
Until then, as Armstrong racks up the miles, optimism and motivation are helping the East-German born rider cope with his early season trials.
“It’s a bit difficult to accept. Morally, I’ve endured a few trials although my motivation is intact,” Ullrich continued.
“The annoying thing is that, for once, I had decided on a different approach to the season in order to get fitter quicker. I didn’t really take much notice of the niggling (in his knee) but then the doctors told me to rest up.
“Lance already looks impressive and seems to be quite strong. But we’re only in April and things might have changed between now and July. It’s never been my style to copy anyone else’s preparation plans anyway – and I’m not going to start now.
“But my aim is still the Tour de France. I will do everything in my power to be 100 percent fit by July.”