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Jan Ullrich - All or Nothing At All
 
By Tick
Date: 12/6/2004
Jan Ullrich - All or Nothing At All
 

Ganz oder gar nicht, Meine Geschicte
(All or Nothing, My Story)

- "I began the year 1998 with a new personal record: I was heavier than ever."

- April 1999: "I was totally fed up. Yet again I had not come through the winter well.... I was even heavier than a year ago. A new record, which left me sad and hopeless."

- Why didn't Jan Ullrich ride the 1999 Tour? "I had lost all interest in cycling. Everything that had to do with cycling seemed to me to be dark and depressing."

- 2002: "This season turned out to be the worst of my life. I lost a nerve-wracking battle against the mysterious pains in my knee. I made incredibly dumb mistakes, disappointed my family and friends and was on the brink of losing my career."

The book cover photo. (c) Amos Schliack.
If there is a recurrent theme in Jan Ullrich's autobiography, it is this: he makes mistakes, he realizes he has made mistakes, always manages to more or less save the situation - and he then goes on to make even more mistakes. Yet he always manages to retain the affection of his fans, perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, his faults.

His book, Ganz oder gar nicht, Meine Geschicte (All or Nothing, My Story) appeared in June 2004 and ends with his return to Telekom/T-Mobile in the fall of 2003.

Ullrich got his first bike at age 5. Shortly thereafter his father disappeared out of his life. And although he says, "I have never missed a father," it is noticeable that he has always turned to trainers and managers (always older, fatherly men) and has developed close, dependent relationships with them, from his first trainer, Peter Sager, to current trainer Rudy Pevenage.

He won his first race when he was 11 and was eventually accepted at the KJS (Sport School) in Berlin. He was still there in 1989 when the Wall fell, and within 2 years the school was closed. However, the opportunity arose for Ullrich and his teammates to move to Hamburg and join an amateur team there. He was still with this team when he unexpectedly won the world amateur road championship in 1993.

He decided to remain an amateur for another year. In 1994 he was unable to repeat his success in the Worlds, but that fall he met someone who was to become the most important person in his life - Gaby Weis. It was apprently love at first sight, and they are still together - although major problems have loomed along the way.

That fall he also signed his first pro contract with the young and struggling Team Telekom. His first pro race was the Catalonian Week, and he ended the first stage as 80th, in the last group. It was an eye-opening experience - a pro race "quickly separates the men from the boys. And I was one of the boys." The whole race was difficult for him. "It was depressing. I hadn't imagined it would be so hard."

In 1996, after a spring of sicknesses, Ullrich was glad to ride the Tour de Suisse - glad to have a big race to ride, because he was not preselected for the Tour de France. His job there was to support his new captain, Bjarne Riis, who got sick and dropped out after the sixth stage. Ullrich, on the other hand, rode exceptionally well and said that after Riis' departure, "I realized that I had been riding with the hand brake on."

He rode so well, in fact, that he caused - not for the last time - a fight between Rudy Pevenage and Walter Godefroot. Godefroot had already preselected his Tour team, and Ullrich was not on it, and the Belgian did not want to change anything. But in the end Ullrich rode well enough to win a place on the team.

And what he accomplished in this, his first Tour de France, only 22 years old, is well-known. And how did he accomplish it? By staying at Riis' side in the mountains, earning his respect, becoming his most important helper and by his own outstanding time trailing abilities.

Coming in to the Tour in 1997, Ullrich had only one goal: "to repeat my performance of last year." It was teammate Jens Heppner who said, before the prologue, that he would have to attack and not wait for Riis. On July 15 was the biggest mountain stage.

"At the foot of the final climb Bjarne rode directly next to me. 'What do we do now,' I asked him."

"'If we want to win today, then we have to attack now.' Bjarne was totally calm.

"That sounded practical to me. 'Okay, and how? Shall I make the tempo and then you attack?'

"'No,' said Bjarne. 'When you can, go for it.'

"I wasn't sure whether I had understood him correctly. But Bjarne had seen what the situation was long before I had. In the past few days I had helped whenever I could and had often had to wait for him. He knew that other riders in my situation would long since have attacked. Bjarne had already give the leader's role over to me, I just hadn't noticed it."

He went on, of course, to win that Tour. He was thereafter celebrated throughout Germany for his extraordinary achievements - advertising contracts, tv appearances, award ceremonies - and he came to life as a celebrity. With disastrous results.

He started the '98 season heavier than ever. He couldn't get in shape. Colds, bronchitis, allergies laid him low. He quickly discovered the downside of celebrity status, as the newspapers that only months before that praised him now heaped ridicule on him.

He finally managed to get in shape for the Tour, but the Tour '98 was destined to be more reknowned for the doping scandals than for the Ullrich-Pantani drama. "I wore the yellow jersey, but was only asked about the new wonder drug EPO. In our team meetings we talked more about the latest rumors than about the tactics for the next day.... I wore the most wonderful jersey in the world and asked myself why. To go down in history as the winner of the legendary Doping Tour?" He didn't win, of course, but took second place.

The spring of 1999 saw - unsurprisingly - overweight, illnesses and false preparation. He wanted to give up, but was persuaded to keep on, and the famous Telekom "Babysitter system" was set up. It was an around the clock system of care-taking, controls and motivation. It didn't help. A crash in the Tour of Germany gave him a knee injury, which was excuse enough to skip the Tour. "I simply had no more interest in cycling. Everything that had to do with cycling seemed to be dark and depressing. I was tired of the endless torture that ruled my life. Since I was nine I had thought of nothing but cycling. After more than 16 years I needed a break."

Evidently the break did him good. The beginning of August the team management suggested that he get back on his bike and ride the Vuelta "as preparation for next season." He liked the thought of being able to salvage something of the current season. And in the end, he won the Vuelta. "What had happened? At the start I would have been satisfied to survive 20 days of the Vulelta. At the end, I had won my second Grand Tour. But almost more important that that: I enjoyed cycling again." And he crowned the crazy season with the world time trial title.

In 2000, Ullrich faced Lance Armstrong in the Tour for the first time. What are his impressions of his rival? "I experienced Armstrong as a highly-concentrated, determinedly competitive captain of the U.S. Postal team, who was constantly pushing his teammates. He was determined to beat this German 'Wonderkind.' It was me who so motivated him. I'm not like that. I am motivated, because I want to win, and that means primarily to win over myself. I respect everything that Lance Armstrong has accomplished in his life, but I wouldn't want to be like him."


Jan wearing the German National Championship jersey and riding for Deutsche Telekom-ARD at the 2001 Tour de France Prologue. Photo by Dave O'Nyons.

The Ullrich-Armstrong 2001 duel is best known for the Alpe d'Huez stage. Ullrich says, "We never took his admitted and not entirely unconvincing act seriously, because when Rudy Pevenage set up our team radios that morning he stumbled across the U.S. Postal frequency. This allowed us to listen in on the radio conversations between Armstrong and his sporting director, and so we learned that they were listening in our frequency, too. We were aware of Armstrong's real motives the whole time."

The drama of the 2002 season began with knee pain during a training camp in South Africa in December 2001. It never went away entirely, race appearances were cancelled, training pauses were ordered. He gained weight. After sitting out the whole month of March, he started training again in April. He overdid it and the pain returned, worse than ever. Out of frustration, he went drinking with a friend on the night of April 30/May 1 - drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident were the results. Not to mention what his girlfriend and team thought of it all. But that was not enough. He was still unable to pull himself together.

The knee was still there, and was finally operated on. Ullrich went to a clinic near Munich for rehabilitation and physical therapy - with a notable lack of success. And he was bored, so he called up friends and went out nearly every evening, staying out very late partying, again incurring the wrath of his girlfriend and team.

On the evening of June 21, 2002, "I was listless and apathetic." A friend offered him two pills - allegedly anti-depressives. "'They're harmless. And much better than drinking a bottle of wine every night.' That sounded convincing. Without thinking any more about it, I swallowed the things." And he was promptly visited by doping testers the next morning.

He was subsequently suspended by the team and by the national cycling organization. Together with partner Gaby he fled, ending up in Whistler Mountain, British Columbia, Canada. He took advantage of the long stay to patch things up with Gaby and to reflect on what he needed to change in his life.

After five weeks, Ullrich returned to Germany and started in on what needed to be done. The knee was operated on again - successfully, this time. He move to Switzerland. He was formally fired by Telekom and started the search for a new team.

His first choice was his old friend and captain Bjarne Riis. The team lined up a new co-sponsor, the trikot was designed, all was ready. But it came to nothing. The new sponsor was to be DHL, the German Post's package delivery service. But when the Post announced that it would have to close 7,000 small post offices and lay off 40,000 workers, there was just no way it could justify pouring millions into a pro cycling team.

CSC was still Ullrich's first choice, but without the new sponsor, the money just wasn't there, and he decided to tell Riis that he would have to look elsewhere. "When Bjarne heard that, he raised his offer. Suddenly he seemed to have found money. I told (manager) Wolfgang (Strohband) on the telephone: 'What Bjarne is doing now just isn't right. Either he had the money all along and didn't want to give it to us, or he still doesn't have it now.'" Ullrich was sorry not to work with Riis, but he also just couldn't do it.

(Note: At this point in the book, Ullrich goes into less and less detail. Many events are skimmed over or omitted.)

Günther Dahms and his Coast team didn't have a lot of money either, but claimed to have lots of potential sponsors lined up who would be interested in a team with Ullrich on it. This time the sponsor and money question didn't seem to carry so much weight in the decision-making process - one gets the impression Ullrich simply wanted to sign a contract, any contract, and have the team question resolved.

Within a few months, Ullrich realized he might have made a mistake. "It's not easy to train when you expect to hear any day that the team you depend on and which you want to be successful with, will be disbanded. Our mood was pretty bad."

The team struggled along, and Ullrich did much better than expected. He won Rund um Köln in an impressive fashion and realized, "I belonged again. I could still win."

Even more important than the professional accomplishments were the personal ones. One of the life-changing decisions he and partner Gaby had made was to start a family. On July 1, 2003, it happened - his daughter Sarah Maria was born. "I have never been so moved as at this moment."

The very next day he was off to France for the Tour. (That the team's name was now Bianchi is only very briefly mentioned.) Within days he got sick, a fact he was desperate to hide from everyone. During one stage he felt so bad that plans were made for him to drop out at the feed zone. But good friend and teammate Tobi Steinhauser went to the Tour doctor's car, picked up two aspirin, allegedly for himself, and gave them unobtrusively to his captain. These helped enough to keep him in the race.


Ullrich at Troyes, 2003 Tour de France. Photo courtesy Cycling Pictures.de.

And then they came to Luz Ardiden.

"Armstrong crashed and took Mayo down with him. I was able to avoid them at the last minute. My heart beat like crazy. Thank God I hadn't crashed, too, I thought with relief. Now I was leading. I was first. Rudy spoke to me over the radio: 'We're in the Tour de France, Jan, think very carefully about what you do.' Within seconds I had to decide: attack and take the victory, or wait until my rival was back on his bike again. It was instinctive, I couldn't do anything else, I waited." Armstrong won the race and the Tour, of course. "It was crazy: Armstrong crashed and profited from it in the end. I, on the other hand, did the right thing and lost in the end."


And how will it end for Jan Ullrich? How will he be remembered? "As a gifted rider who often made problems for himself but was able to pull himself together and achieve great success. Or as a careless genius, who all too seldom was able to convert his enormous talent into unforgettable victories."

He knows how he would like to go down in history: as a man "who battled as hard against his own weaknesses as against his rivals. A man who rode his bike passionately, who loved life and all its temptations, and who learned to be responsible for himself and those at his side."

The Book:

"Ganz oder gar nicht, Meine Geschichte," by Jan Ullrich with Hagen Bossdorf
Language: German
Publisher: Econ Verlag
ISBN 3-430.19231-5

Grateful acknowledgement to Econ Verlag.


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