Ullrich – The big unknown

For a guy who spends the month of July under the klieg lights of the Tourde France, Jan Ullrich’s preparations for the Tour are largely unknown.In fact, apart from a plethora of pre-season interviews arranged at hisT-Mobile team’s Spanish training camp back in January, followed by hisonly pre-Tour clash with Lance Armstrong reported en masse by the Germanmedia at the Tour of Murcia in March, Ullrich’s plans for his annual July rendezvous with the Tour have mostly fallen below the radar. The 30-year-old German looked good at his training camp, having alreadyspent two months of alternating his

They say he’s the only one who can beat Armstrong. But can he?

Ullrich has spent much of 2004 training outside of the public eye.

Ullrich has spent much of 2004 training outside of the public eye.

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For a guy who spends the month of July under the klieg lights of the Tourde France, Jan Ullrich’s preparations for the Tour are largely unknown.In fact, apart from a plethora of pre-season interviews arranged at hisT-Mobile team’s Spanish training camp back in January, followed by hisonly pre-Tour clash with Lance Armstrong reported en masse by the Germanmedia at the Tour of Murcia in March, Ullrich’s plans for his annual July rendezvous with the Tour have mostly fallen below the radar.

The 30-year-old German looked good at his training camp, having alreadyspent two months of alternating his training between his Swiss home aboveLake Constance and the warmer roads of Tuscany and Mallorca. But afterracing at Murcia and the five-day Setmana Catalana in March, followed bythe four-day Circuit de la Sarthe in April, he looked in worse shape thanin January.

He wasn’t riding well, either. Ullrich lasted less than 100km in theFlèche Wallonne classic on April 21, and then decided not to startLiège-Bastogne-Liège. He returned to an intensive trainingprogram and didn’t plan to race for another five weeks until the Tour ofGermany (May 31-June 6) and Tour of Switzerland (June 12-20), two eventshe targeted to bring his form up to his Tour de France level.

Despite the generally negative tone of the press he’s received — “He’soverweight… No one that fat can be ready for the Tour…” — Ullrich was warmand chatty when VeloNews visited him at his team hotel after the thirdstage of the Setmana Catalana in northeast Spain.

One of the big questions that many have asked is whether Ullrich’s teamhas, as Lance Armstrong has put it, “too many chiefs.” And how does hesee his relationship with Alex Vinokourov, who raced to third place atlast year’s Tour? Ullrich was very clear in his response. (Editor’sNote: – This interview was conducted – and the story written – priorto Vinokourov’s decision to withdraw from the Tour de France after an accidentand injury at the Tour of Switzerland and Ullrich’s own overall victoryin the Swiss Tour.)

“We don’t have competition within our team,” he stated. “It’s very obviousthat I want to be the strongest, and at T-Mobile we ride for whoever isthe strongest guy. And if I see that I am not as strong as Vinokourov,then I won’t have any problem to help him. But my major objective of thisyear is to be the strongest and win the Tour de France.”

And is it motivating to have such a great rider as Vinokourov on histeam? “It’s very motivating to have guys like that on the team,” Ullrichcontinued. “For example, if I would be strong enough to take the yellowjersey then it’s very motivating to have a team that’s strong enough tokeep it, especially with guys like Vino’ or [Santiago] Botero, or all theother guys, so that it’s for sure we can keep the jersey.”

At last year’s Tour, Ullrich was on the weaker Team Bianchi. Even so,at the team time trial, that squad rode well above its perceived strengthto take third place, 43 seconds behind Armstrong’s U.S. Postal formation.Perhaps the personal efforts made by Ullrich in that stage, which kepthim in contention overall, contributed to the “hushed-up” crisis he sufferedthe following day.

On the Tour’s ultra-fast fifth stage from Troyes to Nevers, over difficult,rolling terrain, Ullrich nearly quit the Tour. “I was definitely at thelimit because I had fever, I was sick and I was at the limits of my abilities,”he revealed. “But if you train a whole year for it, and if you prepareyourself a whole year, then you want to fight, to continue in the race.And that’s what made me go on.”

That sickness continued to affect him for the next three days, includingthe climb to L’Alpe d’Huez, but Ullrich bounced back to beat a dehydration-weakenedArmstrong at the long time trial to Cap’Découverte, and then camewithin 15 seconds of the American’s yellow jersey on the first day in thePyrénées. The German has been criticized for not fully capitalizingon Armstrong’s vulnerability that day, and instead making his strongestattack two days later on the Col du Tourmalet — by which time Armstronghad recovered.

Asked whether he regretted any of his apparent tactical mistakes, Ullrichreplied, “It’s clear that people will look for mistakes from the guy whowas second. The winner never makes mistakes. So I don’t really regret things,especially the times that I’ve made mistakes [because they] didn’t makeme lose the Tour de France.

“The only mistake throughout the years that I regretted was in ’98 [onthe stage over the Galibier to Les Deux-Alpes], when I was in difficultythrough hunger, through the cold, and I didn’t eat enough, and I didn’tcarry enough warm clothing, and I lost the Tour de France [to Marco Pantani].That’s the thing that I regret the most.”

This year, besides Ullrich and Armstrong, there is the potential thatanother half-dozen riders could be in contention for the overall Tour victory.Ullrich said this doesn’t concern him. On the contrary, he said, “I preferit when there are more people competing for the victory. And of courseit’s not Lance and me that have caused this rivalry between us, it’s alsosomething that’s cooked up by the media. And when there are more competitorscompeting for the victory in the Tour de France it makes it more interestingfor everybody.”

That’s true, but the public is still eager to watch another Armstrong-Ullrichbattle at the Tour. The two men haven’t had many encounters since lastyear’s race, other than sitting near each other at the 2004 Tour de Francepresentation in Paris last October and symbolically shaking hands beforethe start of the Tour of Murcia in early March. But the two are constantlythinking of each other. When Armstrong was asked last winter whom he thoughthis opponents would be this coming July, he said, “Only Ullrich. Ullrich’sfar and away the biggest rival. We follow him closely. That’s who we spend most of our time analyzing … the only one we really pay attention to… what he’s racing, what are his race results, what he’s saying, how bighe is.”

Ullrich’s size has remained a reference point, and not only for Armstrong. When the German was asked in late April by the newspaper Bild am Sonntag to comment on the widespread criticism, including a comment by Eddy Merckx on Belgian television, that he was “too heavy,” the 1997 Tour winner reacted strongly.

“The thing about my weight is rubbish,” he said. “I could be 2 or 3kilos [5 or 6 pounds] lighter, but I trained a lot in the winter and builtup muscle mass. This additional strength will help me cope with the demandsof the Tour and overcome them. Armstrong is different from me, and it isnot the first time I’ve been in this situation.”

But not even Ullrich knows whether he’ll be ready to face Armstrongon an equal footing at the Tour prologue on July 3. That’s still the bigunknown.