The tragedy of Jan Ullrich

The sad story of a bungled career

(Cycling magazine De Muur, Summer 2006)

The news from the Ullrich camp this spring was all too familiar. Ullrich was unable to start into the season at the Circuit de Sarthe as planned. Problems with his knee had kept him from training as he claims he would have liked to. One thing led to another. By the time he finally started racing in the Tour de Romandie, Ullrich was so far behind in his regime that he himself was becoming skeptical of having a shot at the Tour de France-victory.

After nine years of the same, the German public was finally getting impatient with these sorts of news. The knee injury may have been unfortunate but then there has always been some misfortune or other in Ullrich's preparation that has prevented him from entering the Tour in his best form. When after an encounter in Tuscany this spring Bjarne Riis said that he didn't feel as though Ullrich still wanted to be a professional cyclist, much of the German cycling public silently applauded. Ullrich just doesn't act and live like a professional. He never has. He does not want to do what it takes to win. And in the nine years since his Tour victory, he has shown himself unwilling and unable to change his ways. "I just don't understand him", Lance Armstrong, who has always been a perfectionist, commented on Ullrich during this year's Giro.

Ullrich's career is shaping up to become a tragedy. Most likely, he will, as he has always been able to, pull himself together by July – during the Giro he has already shown remarkable progress. He will most likely ride a respectable Tour but he will probably not win. And most likely this will be his last Tour de France. The statistics of his career will remain impressive – a Tour victory, five second places, a Vuelta victory, world champion, Olympic champion. Yet he will be remembered not by what he accomplished but by what he didn't.

When Ullrich first won the Tour in 1997 experts from Eddy Merckx to the reporters of L'Equipe foresaw a stellar career. The world had not seen a cyclist like him before. But none of the predictions came true. Sure there was Lance Armstrong. But Ullrich's biggest opponent was always himself. That is why will not be revered like Raymond Poulidor. Poupou was the eternal looser but he was a heroic looser, one who fought to the end, never gave up and simply lacked the talent and the luck. Ullrich, however, is just a looser. A looser because he lacked the intelligence, the desire and the discipline to live and train like a champion.

Ullrich is 32 and has been a professional for almost 12 years. At this point it is hard not to hold him responsible for the many chances he has missed and that he is now running out of. Yet why Ullrich is who he is becomes understandable, when you look at his biography. Jan Ullrich is truly a product of East Germany and perhaps, like so many East Germans, he has never fully adapted to the ways of the West.

It was one of the markers of East German communist society to discourage self-sufficiency and responsibility. The state planned your life for you – the decisions you could make on your own behalf where extremely limited. You did not choose a career for instance but where placed where you were needed. This was true also true for young Jan Ullrich. And, as it turned out, that was not a good preparation for being a world class professional athlete and a superstar in the world of commercial sports and mass media.

In the GDR the most talented kids of the local sports club were sent to Berlin at age 11 to be centrally tested by the nation's best sports scientists. They determined whether the young athlete was suited to win Olympic medals ten or so years down the road. The ones that passed the test were taken away from home, placed into a sports school in the country's capital and rigorously prepared for their destiny as sporting heroes of the working class.

Of course Jan Ullrich was one of the chosen. The coaches in Berlin were enthusiastic about this formidable talent from the Eastern seaboard city of Rostock. So from the day he was 13 years old, Ullrich was logged into their system. His every day's schedule was preordained. He had to worry about nothing but fulfilling the plans that the wizards of East German sports medicine had concocted for him. Food, lodging, education, his future – everything else was taken out of his hands.

After the wall came down in 1990 Ullrich had the fortune (or misfortune, as it sometimes seems now) that things for him largely continued as they were. His coach from the East German national youth sporting school, Peter Becker, was not ready to watch his labor of many years go to waste. With resourcefulness, Becker held together his group of young riders and continued his program with them.

After a brief transitional period, Becker found a sponsor. The Hamburg based car dealer and cycling enthusiast Wolfgang Strohband was willing to take over the entire squad and fund them. They moved into a house outside the city and recreated a utopia of communist sports education in the midst of capitalist West Germany.

Becker, who strongly believes in the ideals of a socialist education to this day, is nostalgic when he remembers those times. "It was a perfect collective", he recalls. No one was privileged over anyone else. No one got a better bike than anyone else. Everyone had to take on the same household chores. And a victory of one rider in a race was always perceived as a victory of the entire group: "When Jan won a race, he would say WE won. Not I won."

To internalize the idea of the collective – to become a perfect socialist individual - was the central goal of any education in East Germany. The introduction to a standard text book on socialist sports education reads: "Athletic performance is first and foremost the result of a collective endeavor. Only in the collective and through the collective does the personality of the individual unfold. Personal and societal goals are identical."

This education for Jan Ullrich was an ideal preparation for his first years as a professional cyclist. He was a devoted and utterly unselfish helper. Not once did he question the team hierarchy in 1996, when he helped Bjarne Riis win the Tour. Even though many observers thought even then, that Ullrich was clearly the stronger rider.

After the 1996 season and his second place finish behind Riis it never occurred to Ullrich, to find a new team where he would be the captain; where he would have a team that would support him in trying to win the Tour. Instead, Ullrich repeated over and over that Riis was his captain and that he would be proud to ride for him.

Until the now legendary day at Arcalis-Andorra. And even then, when at the foot of the decisive climb, Riis conceded that Ullrich was the stronger man, the role of the leader had to be practically forced on Ullrich. Riis ordered Ullrich to win in his stead and Ullrich took off leaving everyone behind with unbelievable ease. Yet in the process he kept turning around looking for Riis, as if to make sure that he was actually doing the right thing.

His discomfort with the role of the captain is best summed up in the now famous incident between Udo Bölts and Jan Ullrich in the final week of the Tour in the Vosges. Ullrich was having a bad day and Bölts had to remind Ullrich of his responsibility toward the team. When Bölts screamed at his captain to "suffer – you pig", the implication was that this was not just about Ullrich. The whole team had sacrificed themselves for 21 tough days to win this Tour. And if his individual success was not important enough for Ullrich to push himself to his limits, then maybe the success of the team was. Obviously Bölts knew Ullrich well enough to understand that reminding him of the collective would do the trick. It did.

Of course the Tour victory marked only the start of Ullrich's problems. He was never comfortable with the role as celebrity, with the media attention. He was never comfortable with outside expectations. As a result he stumbled from one crisis into the next, culminating in the drug and alcohol scandals of 2002. And to this day, Ullrich has never really come to terms with what he represents to German fans and to Germany.

But Ullrich was not the only East German cyclist who had problems adjusting to the Western system of professional sports. The influx of East German talent and scientific Know-How has given German cycling a boost that it would not have otherwise experienced. Yet pro cycling and the East Germans in many ways remain a mismatch.

Some fared better than others. The first East German star on the pro scene was Olaf Ludwig who is now the director of the T-mobile squad. Eventhough he was already nearing the end of his career in 1990 he managed to accumulate an impressive list of pro victories. Today, he is credited with single handedly making Telekom, then the only German pro team survive. Without Ludwig's success in the Tour and in the Classics the sponsor would have withdrawn.

Like Ludwig, Erik Zabel, also a product of the East German system did exceptionally well for himself. His pro career is truly unparalleled. And unlike Jan Ullrich he never had a problem with standing up for himself and pursuing his own interest. For his personality type, which is almost completely opposite to Ullrich's, reunification truly was a liberation.

The same can be said of Jens Voigt, a class mate of Erik Zabel's in the East Berlin sports school. As for Zabel and unlike Ullrich, for Voigt things did not go so smoothly immediately after the wall came down. Like Zabel he had to learn to survive and learn quickly. After his third tier Polish team folded and he was unemployed, Voigt jumped at the chance to join Credit Agricole and move to France to live with an international group of riders near Toulouse. It was his only chance to subsist as a pro-cyclist. His family was far away, no one spoke his language. For Jan Ullrich, such a thing would have been unthinkable. Today Voigt is fluent in a handful of languages and is one of the most popular riders in the Peloton.

Others did not manage so well. Most infamously Uwe Ampler failed personally and as a pro after reunification. Being a national hero in the East as Olympic champion and winner of the "Course de la Paix" – the East's premiere cycling event - Ampler was never able to accept the role as a pro rider among others.

Ampler quickly caused trouble at Team Telekom because he was not treated as a star. The conflicts escalated until finally Ampler was let go. But that was only the beginning of the problems for the darling of East German cycling fans. His manager, a dubious figure who had somehow gained Ampler's confidence, talked him into a law suit against Telekom. Ampler publicly claimed that the Telekom management had given him performance enhancing drugs against his will.

The suit brought Ampler a lot of public attention. In the cycling world however it was his death sentence. Not only did he loose the trial against the mutli-billion dollar communications-corporation Deutsche Telekom. He also never found a job again as a cyclist of a top team. Yet he continued to trust his manager, who talked him into bad investments. Little later not only Ampler himself but also his father – himself a former Course de la Paix-winner and cycling hero in the East – went bankrupt.

Having learned nothing but cycling and in dire need of money, Ampler took back to riding in 1997 at age 33. He hired with Mroz, a second tier Polish team. Amazingly he came back to win the Course de la Paix in 1998 against a strong Telekom squad with Riis and Steffen Wesemann. It was a triumph for all of East Germany and Ampler was once again a hero. People in the East identified with the man who had been misunderstood by the West, who had failed in the capitalist system but had come back to show them, that he and the East were still alive. Little later, Ampler was tested positive for steroids and forcedly ended his career for a second and final time.

Ampler's fate shows that the divided past of the country continues to haunt German society as well as German cycling. As recently as last September two team officials were fired from the newly formed Milram squad because they had been proven to spy on their fellow citizens for the East German government in communist times. The German precursor of Milram, Team Wiesenhof, was based in Leipzig in East Germany and many positions in the team were filled via East German old connections. With the team going to the Pro-Tour, however, the brotherhood of ex-communists could no longer be upheld.

In East Germany there is to this day a strong sense of spite against the West, a sort of passive-aggressive resistance against what is perceived of as arrogance and ignorance. The sentiment is that the West not only has misconceptions about what the East was and is but also a flawed sense of superiority. West Germans – the East Germans believe – think they always have the answers and always know better.

This brand of spite of the East toward the West came to the fore during the qualification procedures for the team pursuit of the 2004 Olympics. The riders – all from the East - were put through trials by Western sport-officials, which they perceived of as unfair and unnecessary. One of the riders – Daniel Becke - wore his old GDR national jersey for the trial in protest. Becke – a team mate of Jan Ullrich's at Team Bianchi in 2003 – made clear, that he was a product of the system of the GDR and proud of it.

The perhaps most prominent figure personifying this attitude - that not all in the East was bad - is "Täve" Gustaf Adolf Schur. Schur won the Course de La Paix in the 1950s and was an amateur world champion. In GDR-times he was a national hero as well as a proud member of the ruling communist party. And Schur stubbornly held on to his convictions after 1990. Unitl recently, he was a delegate in the German parliament for the PDS party (party of democratic socialism) – the successor of the socialist party that ruled the GDR for more than forty years.

Schur devoted himself to keeping the Course de La Paix through East Germany, Poland and the Tchech republic alive in post-communist times. The stage race had once been the pride of communist Eastern Europe and to many minds in East Germany it remains just that. It is a central piece of East German identity and Schur has managed to salvage it against the pressures of marketing and capitalism. On the side of the road during the race, die-hard Easterners sing the old communist party songs and revel in nostalgia for the good old days, before everything was corrupted by western decadence.

Jan Ullrich certainly shares some of this typically Eastern spitefulness and stubbornness, some of this "we will not be bossed around by you Westerners, who think they know everything." Certainly, when it comes to expectations by the public and the media.

When pressure mounts, Jan Ullrich shuts down. The pattern started after his Tour victory in 1997 – when amidst all the hysteria around him he fled to a vacation and came home severely out of shape and overweight. It was almost as if to make it visibly impossible for him to fulfill the expectations of the public, that he would win the Tour over and over again.

Ever since, it has been the same story almost every year. The predictable injuries and illnesses in the preparation are uncanny – it seems as though he has somaticized his psychological strategy for dodging expectations. Indeed this seems to be a subconscious process with Ullrich, one which he is unable to control or to change. He even seems to be suffering from it, as his drug and alcohol escapades and his obvious eating disorders seem to indicate.

When the pressure is off, however, Ullrich has always been able to return to his brilliance – whether it was at the Vuelta 1999, the 2000 Olympics or the Tour de France 2003. When no one expects anything from him, he is at his best. When people and perhaps when he himself expects him to deliver, he cracks. By messing up his preparation year after year, it almost seems as though he is creating a situation where it is impossible for him to deliver. When expectations are off, including his own – he is finally free to perform. It is a bizarre drama that Ullrich puts on year after year.

To his credit the pressures on him in Germany have always been enormous. All nations have their sports heroes but there is something particularly unpleasant in the way Germany treats it's idols. German fans identify with their stars to the point of crossing all boundaries. The star is always called by his first name or nickname and he is denied any right to privacy whatsoever.

The worst aspect of this form of admiration is that German fans take everything their star does personally. If he fails to deliver, like Jan Ullrich has repeatedly, it is taken as a betrayal almost. The fans and the media create a public image of what they expect the star to be. And when he fails to live up to this image imposed on him, he is tarred and feathered.

Ullrich's story was written the day he first wore the Yellow Jersey in 1997. He was the prodigy, the Wunderkind who would be invincible throughout his lifetime, the new Siegfried. That he turned out instead to be a highly talented but conflicted kid, struggling with his life and his identity and fucking up regularly was never forgiven him.

It is hard to say, why German sports fans act that way; why it is, that their identification with their national heroes comes out in extremes of over-glorification on the one hand and an almost violent rejection, if the object of such misguided affection turns out to be a disappointment. Perhaps it is an overcompensation for the fact that national pride and the cult of personality in Post-Nazi Germany remains largely taboo in areas other than sports.

Part of the reason why Jan Ullrich was so particularly exposed to the hysteria of national hero-worship was, of course, that he had accomplished a historic feat. He was the first German to ever win the Tour de France and had put Germany on the map in a sport, in which the country had previously played only a minor role.

German cyclists from Kurt Stöpel to Hennes Junckermann, Rudi Altig, and Gregor Braun of course had been successful before but never successful enough to sustain a broad national interest in the sport. The last time before Ullrich that there was a wave of passion for cycling in Germany, was in the days of Didi Thurau.

Thurau of course turned out to be a huge disappointment. After his phenomenal 15 days in yellow in 1977, during which he won not only the hearts of Germany but of the entire cycling world, his career went wrong almost instantly. Thurau quarreled with his numerous teams over money, wasted his talent in the Sixdays and got involved in doping scandals. By the time he quit, nobody cared much about him or cycling anymore. The Tour of Germany for example, which was re-launched in the wake of Thurau's popularity in 1979, died again in 1982.

Despite his fickleness, with Jan Ullrich, things seem to be different. He has at least kept the hope for a Tour de France-victory alive for almost ten years. These ten years have been enough to give cycling in Germany an enormous boost. Now structures are in place that make Germany one of the major cycling nations.

Germany now has three Pro-Tour teams. It has a very successful national Tour and a world cup race. The number of German professional cyclists is increasing steadily, as is their level of riding. There is a constant supply of talent coming from Germany – new and interesting names and faces appear on the pro-scene every year. Of course all this does not make Germany a true cycling nation yet. The real test will come, when Jan Ullrich ends his career this year or next. Then, one will see if national hero worship has translated into a real love of the sport.

And that - after all - is what constitutes a true cycling culture. France for example has sustained a national passion for cycling despite the fact that there hasn't been a truly great French rider since the times of Hinault and Fignon. The level of knowledge and appreciation of the history and the traditions of cycling that you find among sports fans in France or Belgium or Italy, is certainly not prevalent in Germany. Not yet.

On the other hand there has always been cycling and there have always been great riders in Germany since the beginnings of the sport. A major reason why the sport has not been able to develop more continuously, however, is that since the beginnings of cycling in the late 19th century, Germany has undergone so many political changes. East and West combined, Germany has gone through no less than five states in the 20th century. And with the lack of political continuity there was also a lack of stability to secure the growth of a sport.

The last major political change in Germany, reunification, however seems to have been an overall good one for cycling. Even, if the process was not always a smooth one.

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