Alex Zülle – The ‘Mr. Magoo’ of Cycling
Not being able to ‘race chase’ la Vuelta a España properly over the last covid years, our man in Spain, Alastair Hamilton, has had to rely on memory. He first saw la Vuelta 23 years ago and remembers one of the big stars – Alex Zülle. Zülle: The short-sighted cyclist with a lot of talent, no luck, an intimacy with doping and with a propensity for crashing. Al looks at his cycling career, good and bad.
Thinking back to the first time I saw the Spanish Grand Tour ‘in the flesh’. I’d moved to Spain at the end of 1999 and was looking forward to the 2000 race passing close-by on stage 6 from Benidorm to Valencia. A short ride out to the Calpe coast road and find a quiet spot and some shade from the August sun under a tree. The bunch was all together as the stage was still in its first 20 kilometres. Zülle was in the leader’s gold jersey (as it was then) and riding on the front. I was convinced he looked straight at me, I now realise he could have been looking at the tree, the view, my bike… or just about anything.
‘Mr. Magoo’ or in Spain; ‘Rompetechos’
All cycling fans will remember Alex Zülle, especially for his poor vision, his countless crashes and his terrible bad luck. You will also remember this discreet and humble cyclist for being an extraordinary time trialist, for never giving up and for standing out in the Grand Tours. He was a great rider who was good on any type of terrain, except when it rained and his glasses were fogged up, on those occasions he lost his vision and nerves, the mountain descents became a headache for him and his director, having to abandon many times due to crashes. Zülle needed 4.5 dioptres in each eye (1 dioptre = 1 m-1), so on descents when it rained he had no choice but to pray and be guided by the braking of the other riders.
St. Brieuc Tour prologue TT crash
Twice winner of the Tour of the Basque Country, the Vuelta a España twice and the time trial World champion in 1996. He also finished second twice in the Tour de France. He could have won bigger races, but his bad luck and the huge rivalry that existed in those years with riders like Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong, Tony Rominger, Marco Pantani… and so many others, prevented him.
Tour’96 crash on the Cormet de Roselend
His passion for the bike could not come from anything else but from a fall. Alex, like many Swiss athletes, wanted to devote himself to skiing, but an injury while competing prevented him. To improve the rehabilitation he decided to train in the Netherlands. His father, Walter Zülle, bought him all the necessary equipment for cycling, and little by little he would persuade him to move on to this sport.
Zülle had to be rescued by several photographers from the bushes
After a few years as a stand out amateur, he decided to move up to the professionals. His first contract was signed with Manolo Saiz’s ONCE, but the sports director was not going to make it easy, since he would refuse to hire him at first, for among other things, because Zülle wore ear-rings, something he did not allow any of his riders.
No ear-rings at ONCE
In Spain 1993, on May 14 the 19th Vuelta stage was between Gijón and Alto del Naranco. By then Tony Rominger and Alex Zülle were fighting together for the final victory of the Spanish Grand Tour, after some sensational duels in the time trials and mountains. But this stage was going to be the key for Rominger to take the final victory. It was raining in the Asturian mountains, and when they hit La Cobertoria, Zülle could see only mud and water, and could not to differentiate the curves from the straights. “Water… bike, flowers, ass, ground” this is how the unfortunate Alex described his situation. The climb of this mountain pass is hard, with an 8% slope, but the descent is very dangerous. With 50 kilometres left to race, he lost control on the descent and went into a ditch ripping up his shorts, and his chance of winning the Vuelta by losing more than a minute. Such was his despair and his poor vision, what worried him most at the time of the fall was not finding his bike. Even with his injuries, he tried to close the gap, but it was too much. He won the final stage 44.6 kilometre time trial to Santiago de Compostela, but it was not enough to take back the time he lost in the crash, and he could not take his first victory in a Grand Tour, just yet.
Tour’96 stage 7 – Les Arcs
Tour de France, July 6, 1996, the Chambery to Les Arcs stage 7. The day when Miguel Indurain was shown to be mortal. It was the first major climb of the Alps and the five time Tour winner lost more than 4 minutes at the finish. That same day was also going to be unfortunate for Zülle, who fell twice on the descent of the Cormet de Roselend, a complicated descent that requires a lot of technique, patience and… vision, something that the Swiss cyclist lacks. The second fall was more spectacular, and he had to be rescued by several photographers from the bushes. This was the Tour that Alex Zülle led for the first two stages after a sensational prologue time trial, showing that he was a serious candidate for the final victory.
Vuelta’93 stage 19 – Alto del Naranco
In 1997, in just two weeks, he was going to have two other important falls. The first in the Dauphiné Libéré that left his body quite bruised after a spectacular crash. The second in the Tour of Switzerland, that was more serious, since he had to be operated on for a collar-bone fracture. In the Tour of that year he suffered yet another fall, and had no choice but to leave because his collar-bone pains had returned.
Zülle spent a lot of time chasing
Tour of 1999, the first of the seven Tours that Lance Armstrong would win (yeah, I know). In that edition Alex Zülle would finish second at 7 minutes 37 seconds down on the American. The key was stage 2, and the Passage du Gois, a two-mile causeway which, depending on the tide, can be under water. A rider came down in the middle of the peloton, leading to the crash that cost pre-race favourites; Alex Zülle, Christophe Rinero and Michael Boogerd more than five minutes to the lead group. Alex not only lost his glasses, but also his chances of the final overall victory. In the big crash he lost 6:03, in addition to his glasses, which he could not find on the road that connects the continent with the island of Noirmoutier.
Passage du Gois – Tour’99
In 1998 he signed for the powerful French Festina team, but on the Tour de France the scandal exploded, the whole team was immersed in one of the biggest doping cases in the history of cycling. Alex admitted to the use of EPO, which he said he took to satisfy his sponsors. Consequence; expulsion from the Tour and a suspension of 7 months.
ONCE in Tour pink
“I have used EPO for about four years,” he told the police. “The first time was when I was riding for the Spanish ONCE team. I used the product for every important race, like the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Spain, with two injections of EPO 2000 per week from three to four weeks before the race, and during the whole of the race.”
“For the 1998 Tour, I began injecting myself with EPO 2000 in mid-June. Fernando Jimenez (team doctor) gave me the doses of EPO for the Giro at the start of the year. He gave me eight doses. That was during a small race in Spain at the start of the season. Afterwards, during the races, the team provided me with EPO. It was always Fernando who injected it into my arm. Sometimes, with him supervising, I injected myself.”
Zülle used EPO while at ONCE, the team he left to join Festina. “EPO was used in the same way, and I can say that about 20 riders took EPO under the supervision of the doctor; Nico Terrados… I can’t prove it but I think that today EPO can be found in all the major cycling teams,” he said at the time in 1998.
Over here, Alex
Zülle added that he had experimented with human growth hormone for the first time that year, at his own request. “That year I so much wanted to win the Tour. Dr. Rijkaert gave me a dose of human growth hormone every two days during the first week of the Tour, and I injected it myself. But I noticed that it did not have the effect I expected.”
Zülle with fellow Swiss rider Fabian Jeker
After leaving the police station he complained because he was treated like a criminal. They left him completely naked, and even took his glasses, “My rings, ear-rings and glasses where removed. They left me stark naked. They stuck fingers up my ass. They took blood, urine and hair roots to tests and they are looking at my DNA, and they interrogated me. In the end they told me, ‘either you say that you have taken drugs or you do not leave here’ I could not see any other way out other than to confess. What they have done to me I cannot believe.”
Tour’95 stage 9 – La Plagne
Alex Zülle was a rider who, despite being chased by bad luck during his life as a cyclist, has proven himself to be one of the best and most respected cyclists of the 90s. Although his doping takes the shine off his palmarès. At the time of Zülle’s ‘success’ the use of EPO was rife, according to many ‘a necessity’ to race ‘on a level playing field’. That’s no excuse, but has to be taken into consideration.
Back with a Spanish team after Festina
Zülle retired from professional cycling in 2004, his last two seasons were with the Phonak team, his last win was the Tour de Suisse in 2002, while riding for Team Coast. Zülle organised a party for his fans to celebrate his 14 year career of 66 professional victories, 40 of them in time trials, plus back-to-back victories in the Vuelta a España in 1996 and 1997 and second in the Tour de France in 1995 and 1999. Since his retirement, not much has been heard of the short sighted rider. I’ve asked around and no one knows much about Zülle’s life after the bike. He is still riding, and took part in the Marcha Cicloturista Arranca En Llanta in Valencia in September 2018.
He was a character, that’s for sure.
Last days with Phonak
# Thanks to Jon Piorno for the reminder and the Dario Vasco and the Irish Times for the Zülle quotes. #