PEZ Bookshelf: Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was

Book Review: Jan Ullrich was a ‘Power House’ of a rider and many people predicted that he would be winning everything that came his way. When the big east German was racing, all was well, but his personal life was ‘not of a sportsman’. Daniel Friebe has written a ‘warts and all’ biography; Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was, Ed Hood gives us his thoughts.

August 29th 1993; and whilst I’m aware of and impressed by a young Lance stunning us all by winning the Elite Worlds on a horrible day in Oslo, the German guy who won the amateur race didn’t register with me. But by the ‘94 Worlds when said young German fellow took Worlds individual time trial bronze, behind ‘chronoman supreme,’ Chris Boardman I remember thinking; ‘Jan Ullrich, now there’s a name to watch.’

Worlds’94 TT

In ’95 I probably never noticed that he beat big specialist chronoman, Uwe Peschel to the German time trial title as a neo pro with Team Deutsche Telekom whilst finding his feet among the ‘Bigs.’ But I certainly remember ’96; he was Big Bjarne Riis’ ever faithful wingman in le Tour de France but by the time the final time trial over 63.5 kilometres from Bordeaux to Saint-Emilion – they were ‘proper’ time tests back then – came along, whilst Riis looked at war with his Pinarello finishing fourth and conceding 2:18 to his young team mate. Ullrich was on a different level. He put close to a minute into ‘extra-terrestrial’ tester Miguel Indurain who would go on to win the Olympic time trial that year and more than two minutes into the man who would win silver in the Olympic time test, Abraham Olano, the German riding at a 50 kph plus average. Ullrich finished the race second overall, best young rider and with his Stage 20 time trial win – a stunning Tour debut. The big debate in ’97 was whether Ullrich would be ‘let off the leash,’ to go for the win in the Tour or again play the part of loyal helper to Riis.

Ullrich liked his food

Indicative of the dysfunctional entity that was the over-paid and over-hyped Telekom team in those days, some of Ullrich’s German team mates had been telling him in ’96 that he was stronger than Riis and should go for the win. Jan would spend his whole career with the German team, except for 2003 when he signed for ‘big ideas but little money,’ Coast which was rescued by Bianchi when the money ran out and it was in ‘celeste’ colours he rode the Tour de France. Bianchi were keen to continue the venture into 2004 on the proviso Jan was part of the deal; but Telekom wanted him back, thinking that perhaps that second Tour win was feasible after all? And the publicity from that would make Jan’s seven figure salary seem like but a drop in the ocean. The ’97 Tour prologue in Rouen gave ample warning to Riis, and everyone else who was the stronger. Ullrich conceded just two seconds to ‘super specialist,’ Chris Boardman to finish second in the prologue ahead of men with big pedigrees against the clock like Toni Rominger and Alex Zulle; Riis finished in a prophetic 13th place.

Exchanging his ill-fitting German Elite Road Race for the maillot jaune, Ullrich won two stages, was second in the king of the mountains, best young rider and took the GC by nine minutes from Richard Virenque. Riis? The big Dane finished seventh on GC but entertained us all when his mega bucks Pinarello incurred his rage and frustration, hurling it into a field on the stage 20 time trial. In fairness to the Dane, when it became apparent that this wasn’t his Tour, all his energies went in to supporting Ullrich. But to paraphrase the title of that Jack Nicholson film, that was, ‘As Good as it Got,’ for Ullrich. In ‘98 the man from Rostock in the Old East Germany’s Tour succumbed to Pantani’s ambush in the rain to finish second. There was no Tour for Ullrich in ’99 due to a knee injury incurred on those massive gears he pushed at low cadences. By 2000 it was the, ‘Tour de Lance’ and likewise 2001 and 2003 – more second places. The 2003 defeat was an especially painful one, coming into the final, Stage 19 time trial it was no means a certainty that Lance would win overall with Ullrich having found his form, hovering 1:05 behind the Texan. But remarkably, the German couldn’t be bothered to recce the chrono parcours and paid the price as he skidded across the rain slicked tarmac of a roundabout on his backside; on a day I remember well, watching the race on TV in a little bar in Brittany – delighted that fellow Scot, David Millar had won the day at a stunning at 54.361 kph average.

Armstrong and Ullrich Tour’05

In 2004 Ulrich was fourth in le Tour and in 2005, third. Eight top four finishes in the Tour de France in 10 years is a stunning performance by any measure but having set the bar so high in ‘96 and ‘97 anything except a win was going to be a disappointment. ‘Back in the day,’ Martin Williamson and I spoke to a soigneur who had been with Postal and Telecom. He told us that Lance’s monastic Tour preparation, with every mouthful measured began in November whilst Jan would think about kicking back on the gateaux somewhere around March. The result was that Lance went into the Tour lean and mean whilst Jan was just about coming into form as the race finished – three weeks of the, ‘proper pro-life’ having knocked him back into shape.

In Tour yellow

In ‘99 Ullrich missed the Tour but again, form came late season and he won the Vuelta and World Time Trial Championship. In 2000 the Olympic Road Race fell to him and 2001 the World Time Trial Championship again was his. Great form; but too late in the year to win the race that REALLY matters to the German in the street, le Tour. Then in 2006 it all looked like it had at last again ‘clicked,’ he’d ditched the mega, macho gear ratios, upped his cadence and the knee problems which had blighted previous years were gone. It was to be his last year and he wanted to go out on top with a ‘farewell’ Tour win. He rode the Giro to get in shape, beating specialists Pinotti and Honchar to win a time trial stage. He won the Tour de Suisse and was in self-proclaimed, ‘Bombenform.’

And then. . . Came Operation Puerto. The UCI may have been burying their heads in the sand about the EPO and ‘blood doping’ menaces – but the Spanish police hadn’t. Eufemiano Fuentes was the man they’d been watching closely – and tapping his phone. When they pounced, his Byzantine network of code names, safe houses and fridges full of blood bags soon unravelled. I was in Strasbourg among the craziness at the start of that 2006 Tour start. I remember my boss, Richard Pestes saying; ‘Ed, can you stop writing about drug scandals and start writing about the bike race?’ To which I replied; ‘I’m not certain there’s going to be a race, boss!’ Favourites, Ivan Basso, Francisco Mancebo, Oscar Sevilla, Alexandre Vinokourov – and Jan Ullrich were all out of the race. Jan Ullrich’s Tour de Suisse win remains his last ever win – and race.

Ullrich waited for Armstrong

That’s briefly the palmarès side of his career, which Friebe covers in great detail with many interviews with his coach, Peter Becker and two of the men who attempted to manage their brilliant but erratic charge, Rudy Pevenage and Walter Godefroot – who no longer exchange Xmas cards – not to mention many of his Telekom team mates. And of course, there’s the other ‘stuff’ – Ullrich’s addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, sex; and most damaging of all, for a man whose job involves riding a bicycle up mountains – food. Battles with his weight were an issue all through his career.

Jan & Rudy Pevenage

Friebe documents it all, Ullrich’s cringe inducing retirement press conference, the failed relationships, the car crashes, rehab, the associations with dubious characters. It’s all there – and painful to read, if like me you admired the man. One man who remarkably, in recent times has tried hard to help get Ullrich back on the straight and narrow is Lance. Not known for heaping praise on his rivals, Iban Mayo for example was a ‘punk,’ the Texan has great admiration and respect for Ullrich. The big Ullrich, ‘what if’ is the effect stronger management might have had upon his career, instead of appointing him ‘minders’ to watch what he ate and did and walking on egg shells around him; a Lefevere or Van Der Schueren had grabbed him by the ear and said; ‘this is how it’s going to be, Boy!’ And with that colossal engine of his, such a shame we never saw a fit Jan in Paris-Roubaix.

Jan Ullrich and Olaf Ludwig on the Amstel course 2016

A thorough, impeccably researched job by Daniel Friebe but perhaps in the next edition, Jan’s palmarès as an appendix?

‘Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was’ by Daniel Friebe
Publisher: Pan Macmillan; Main Market edition (September 9, 2022)
Language: English
464 pages
ISBN-10: 150980157X
ISBN-13: 978-1509801572
Dimensions: 9.25 x 1.6 x 6 inches
Price: $39.95, €28.66, £25.00 (hardback) and €20.42, £10.99 (paperback)
Photos in the review are not from the book due to copyright.

*** ‘Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was’ is available from AMAZON.COM HERE. ***

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