Throwback Thursday: Jan Ullrich finally leaves his demons in the rear-view mirror
In this week’s Throwback Thursday, we look at Jan Ullrich, one of the most talented, yet controversial riders of his era.
When Ullrich blasted to Tour de France victory at the age of 23 back in 1997, he appeared primed for a Merckx-like career.
Yet he struggled to reach the same level in subsequent editions of the Tour, and was hounded by doping accusations, injuries and setbacks. And since retiring, he wrestled with a number of well-documented personal issues.
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Following rehab, a clean and sober Ullrich, now 47, is easing back into the public light, and seems to have come to terms with his past.
His legacy in the sport remains controversial. As the first German winner of the Tour, he catapulted to superstar status, but like so many of his generation, much of his reputation remains tarnished in doping scandals and admissions.
A product of East Germany, Ullrich is at once the symbol of a unified Germany as well as a reminder of how the EPO Generation brought professional cycling to its knees.
What was your first impression of Ullrich?
James Startt: Well, the first moment I took note of Jan was at the 1994 world championships in Sicily when he finished third in the first world championship time trial behind Chris Boardman. I think he was actually still an amateur or perhaps on a try-out with Telekom. I went looking for him after the finish just to get a bit of his back story and I remember his director with this big smile on his face, telling me pretty much how this kid would be the next big thing. And he was.
Also read: Jan Ullrich and his journey from light to darkness
Then there was that 1996 Tour where, riding in support of Bjarne Riis, who won that year, he was just such a beast. He crashed. He got up. He was always the last man with Riis, and he still won the final time trial in Saint Emilion. Now that TT was a watershed for many reasons. As the penultimate stage before Paris, Ullrich was totally free to ride for himself. And he just stomped, winning the stage and announcing that he would be a force to be reckoned with in years to come.
Andrew Hood: I first spoke to Ullrich midway through the 1996 Tour. My German was as bad as his English, but we managed to stammer through a few lines out of him for a story. The kid was clearly going places, but no one knew then just how depraved the whole story would become.
In those days, it was quite difficult to get access to the big stars. Either you had a personal relationship with them, or you had to go through the team’s PR. And once he won the Tour in 1997, access to Ullrich was tightly controlled. And once the doping allegations started, it was all but impossible to get a word in with Ullrich.
Perhaps the most impactful direct contact with Ullrich came in the 1998 Tour. I was waiting at the finish line at Les-Deux-Alpes on the day that Pantani attacked in snow and cold, and absolutely blew up the race. Ullrich came across the finish line looking more shattered than any rider I’ve ever seen in professional cycling.
How does the Operation Puerto case mark his legacy?
Hood: Ullrich’s link to Puerto and other doping scandals continues to play out across the German peloton. The sport took a huge blow in Germany following the string of doping confessions that came out of Team Telekom, and in many ways, it’s never fully recovered.
When Telekom and Ullrich were flying high, cycling in Germany was absolutely booming. As the largest economy in Europe, it seemed like Germany was the final frontier in cycling. All that came crashing down in the wake of the EPO Generation and Ullrich’s central role in the drama.
Also read: How a clean and sober Ullrich pedaled back from the brink
For Ullrich, it took him years to finally confess to his own personal involvement in doping. He was haunted by the demons of the era, and fell into years of alcohol and drug abuse. It was only in 2018 that he finally sobered up, and got his life back on track. A healthy and clear Ullrich is tip-toeing back into the limelight; whether that helps the larger German peloton heal the scars of that generation remains to be seen.
Startt: Well, it certainly marked the end of his career, and probably the start of a long downward spiral that he only now seems to be coming out of. But he was just a giant on the bike and I think that he would have had an impressive career in any generation.
Ullrich grew up in the old East German sports school system, and while doping was well-documented in that system, that program did one thing very well, as it did an amazing job of scouting the best talent at a very young age. It was a rigorous system where, once in, there was a constant selection process, as kids got cut every year. So to make it out of that system as a junior, you had to be extremely gifted, period.
What was Ullrich’s finest moment?
Startt: It had to be that first Tour de France victory in 1997. Everything came together for him that year and he was just unbeatable. It was such a promising win as he was one of the youngest riders to win the Tour de France (then 23) and the first German rider and the first rider from the former Soviet bloc to win the Tour.
His victory seemingly announced a brand new era. Everybody in Paris at the finish of the 1997 Tour was convinced that Ullrich would be the next great thing, perhaps even be the first rider to win more than five Tours. That’s how impressive he was, but it was not to be.
Also read: Operación Puerto sputters toward anti-climactic end
He came into the next season significantly overweight and struggled to get fit for the Tour all season long. He never really got back to that 1996 condition again.
The one moment when he really appeared set to win the Tour again was in 2003. Lance Armstrong was struggling throughout the race, and after winning the time trial in Cap Découverte, Ullrich appeared primed to recapture the yellow jersey from the fading Armstrong. But he never really went on the attack and offered Armstrong a chance to recover just enough to hold on to yellow. But then race tactics were never the strong point of Ullrich or his team to be honest. Their mentality was simply ride hard and then ride harder. But to beat Lance Armstrong one needed to race with more savvy than that.
Hood: I still struggle with finding the right balance when discussing results from the EPO Era. On one side, do you say, OK, they were all doped to the gills, and you can still look at the racing in that context. Or do you say, wait a minute, this whole thing was so messed up we shouldn’t even consider the results at all. The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, a thread perhaps a discussion for another moment.
If I had to choose, his finest moment came the day he checked into a rehabilitation center in Miami in 2018. For whatever his sins on or off the bike, Ullrich deserves a chance to get his life back in order. Let’s see if he can use his new-found sobriety to work toward reconciling his past with cycling’s future.