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Book Review: Marcel Wüst - Sprinter Years
By Tick
Date: 1/2/2005
Book Review: Marcel Wüst - Sprinter Years

July 5, 2000 - "Now everybody knew it, the whole world knew it: I had won a stage in the Tour de France. Sure, I had won at the Giro and even won four stages in the first week of the last year's Vuelta, but the Tour is the simply the event that brings you as a cyclist the recognition that you deserve."

In his 12-year career, Marcel Wüst started the Tour de France only two times. And despite his astonishing lifetime 12 Vuelta a Espana wins, this single victory in the Tour brought him the acclaim in Germany that otherwise went to Jan Ullrich or arch-rival Erik Zabel. But it wasn't to last long - only weeks later a crash robbed him of the sight in his right eye, abruptly ending his career at age 33.

In fact, this Tour victory is so important in Wüst's career that its photo graces the cover of his autobiography, Sprinterjahre, Glanz und Schatten einer Radsportkarriere (Sprinter Years: The Glory and Shadows of a Cycling Career).

Young Marcel started riding - or rather, driving - early. At the tender age of 4 he took the family car for a backwards drive down the driveway. His first bike ride ended with a close encounter with a fence post but he quickly got the hang of it. He first saw the Tour during a family camping vacation in France in 1973. In 1977, for his 10th birthday, he got a Peugeot bike with gears and racing handlebars. That same year the German Didi Thureau had shone in the Tour de France, but Wüst decided his new bike was worthy of no less an idol than Tour winner Thevenet.

The next year a bike race in his neighborhood kindled Wüst's interest in racing. He joined the local club and eventually started winning races - sprints, of course. His first international victory came in 1984 when he won the first stage and thus the leader's trikot in Luxemburg. "Through total overestimation of my abilities and tactical failures I promptly lost it the next day, but gained a lot of experience."

One of the teenage cycling stars in Wüst's hometown of Cologne was Heike Gasel, who was not only successful but also "by far the prettiest of the cycling Amazons." In the fall of 1987 Wüst was able to overcome his shyness and the two became a pair.

In July 1988 he signed his first pro contract with the French team RMO, and he rode Paris-Tours for them that year. He won the first intermediate sprint: "My first sprint with the pros and I won it! Of course it was clear to me that this was one of the least important sprints anywhere in pro cycling, but still!"

His first real race as a pro was the Ronde des Pyrenees in February 1989. "I saw the finish-line banner, still 150 meters away, I still waited, then came from behind with my momentum, and just as all three riders before me were together and apparently fighting it out for the win, I shot by all of them and won by at least one bike length."

He started January 1990 off by marrying Heike (remembering too late that he hadn't brushed his teeth that morning, a fact he has never been allowed to forget). He rode the Giro that year for the first time and ended the season with three wins. The next season brought his first Vuelta (still being held in the spring) and he wore the sprinter's jersey until intestinal problems forced him out.

In 1992 he was finally able to recommend himself to the team management for the Tour team. The Tour started in Spain and Wüst managed to become the first rider ever to start the Tour and never make it to France. A crash on the last mountain of the first stage left his collarbone broken in two places.

The next few years brought more problems than anything else. In 1993 and 1994 Wüst rode for Histor Novomail, a team which held no training camp but merely got together for the presentation and team photo, a team where "I often had the feeling the riders were a disruptive factor," whose very existence merely irritated the team management. Things didn't improve in '95 when he rode for the new French team Le Groupement - but only for half a year. Only days before the Tour one of the SDs called Wüst: "The bad news is that we're not going to the Tour, and the really bad news is that the team doesn't exist any more and you won't even be paid for the month of June."

Wüst always seems to land on his feet and got a contract to ride out the season with Castellblanch/MX-Onda, a Spanish team which wanted to do well in the Vuelta. He ended up with three stage wins, including the finale in Madrid.

In one of those three wins, he beat out Telekom's Erik Zabel. "The next day something happened that has bothered me ever since, because it usually doesn't happen among athletes," he says. He ran into Zabel at the signing-in before the stage. "I said, 'Hey, Ete, how's it going,' or something like that. Instead of answering he stood there and looked at me, first from head to toe, then from toe to head, and then went on without a word. I was shocked - what was that supposed to be? You just don't do things like that! .... The worst thing about such things is that there is never a second chance to make a first impression. And so it was that I never got close to Ete, although I had no problems with the other sprinters."

He did have massive problems, however, with the Sporting Director of his new team. He stayed with the team through the '96 season but signed early with Festina for the next season. He was still fighting with his SD as he started the Vuelta, totally out of condition. Things hit bottom when he was caught holding on to the team car and was not only disqualified, but also suspended for two weeks.

In January 1997 he started out with his new team. "In the five years that I was under contract to Festina, there were many highlights, some - unfortunately - very deep lows, but above all, that which makes a team: cohesion and team spirit."

1998, of course, brought the big Festina doping scandal at the Tour. Wüst was not on the Tour team, and brushes off the whole affair in two pages. He does not address the question of doping within the team and seems more irritated by the press coverage than by anything else.

The year was, however, also a very important one for Wüst personally. An unexpected but long-hoped-for pregnancy helped him cope with the team difficulties. He won 2 Vuelta stages and almost immediately upon his return from Madrid drove his wife Heike to the hospital for the birth of son Alexander.

Wüst was scheduled to ride Paris-Tours a few days later, but his priorities had changed, and training was no longer among them. "It rained on Friday and I spent the whole day with Heike and Alexander. It was wonderful.... How fantastic a newborn baby smells! ... And the little fingers and the satisfied grunts as he nursed at Heike's breast. That evening I called (S.D.) Juan (Fernandez) and explained the situation to him. He realized I wouldn't be of any help to the team and released me into the offseason."

He was scheduled to ride the '99 Tour, but a fall in a criterium race the beginning of June and the resulting broken collarbone put an end to that. He rounded off the year with 4 more Vuelta stage wins.

The year 2000 finally brought Wüst a successful Tour de France, and he managed to pull off a big surprise. The race didn't have a prologue, but started with a regular time trial, meaning the sprinters wouldn't have a chance to claim the yellow or green jersey. What to do? Apparently Wüst was the only one who realized that the time trial contained a climb, with KOM points. He figured this was his best chance to get a jersey - and certainly his only chance to get the KOM jersey - and went for it. A sprinter in the polka-dot jersey!

Two stages later he went for his first Tour stage win, ending up second behind Tom Steels but before Erik Zabel. A journalist asked him "the dumbest of all questions": Was he not satisfied to have beaten Zabel? His answer: "What kind of nonsense is that? I'm not here at the Tour to ride against Zabel, I'm here to win a stage. And if you had done your homework, you would know that I have beaten your Zabel plenty of times. I want to win, against anybody, and don't ask me such stupid questions again!"

Finally, it happened, and Wüst was able to fulfill his childhood dream. "I pulled out from behind and as I quickly raised my head, I saw that I would make it. With this speed difference I would pass him well before the finish line. Of course that gave me an extra motivation - childhood dream, here I come! - passing all of them on the finish line at Vitre! Very close, so as not to go any further than I had to, I shot past Zabel and still had time to raise my arms in victory." He had finally achieved the recognition that he had so long been denied. "I was surrounded by people, who all wanted something from me, camera teams, radio and print reporters, all of them acting as if I had done something fantastic. Of course it was a fantastic achievement. But was it really such a surprise? ... It was enough that the other sprinters knew that I didn't win by chance, but was a world-class sprinter. But I was still amazed that some cycling reporters had to be presented with a Tour stage win before they understood it too."

Marcel, Heike and Alexander at the 2000 Tour de France. Courtesy Marcel Wüst, © H. A. Roth-Foto.

The good times weren't to last.

August 11, 2000, started out well for Wüst - ten hours sleep and an especially good breakfast. Then off to a criterium race and its abrupt end: "It was pretty clear to me that I had crashed, but how it happened - which really isn't important - I'll never know. I have a vague memory of lying on the ground with lots of people screaming around me, but it is all very blurry. I am hot and cold at the same time and the people's voices sound far away ... then the film breaks."

Despite the memory lapses, Wüst goes into great detail about the injuries, the hospitals, the treatments. Of particular interest is a lengthy section written by Heike Wüst, describing her experiences of the situation.

Wüst returned to the Tour in 2001, but as a journalist, doing commentary for German TV. He was still part of the Festina team, but the firm was ending its sponsorship. The new German team Coast was looking for help - the solution was obvious. Marcel Wüst became team manager, and two sporting directors, the team doctor, three masseurs, three mechanics and six riders went over to Coast with him.

Things did not go smoothly and from the beginning Wüst had problems with Dahms' business dealings. The team made it through the 2002 season with modest success, but "after the end of the season, the dark clouds got thicker and thicker." Then a certain German rider became available and Dahms was eager to sign him. Wüst's advice was, "If you can finance him by yourself, then that would be the best thing that could happen to us ... If you need a co-sponsor to finance him, then DON'T hire him in the hope that you will find a co-sponsor because you have Ullrich."

This wise advice went unheeded. Ullrich was signed and brought a team of helpers with him. Wüst was now only the team's press spokesman and the question he was most frequently asked was, how can Dahms afford all of this? The short answer was, of course, that he couldn't.

In the end, Bianchi took over the team, offering all riders a contract, but "with up to 60% less than the former contracts," which naturally led to feelings of discontent. Wüst did not continue with the new team, which did not survive the season. Since then he has continued as a commentator for German TV and purused other journalistic and promotional actitivies.

During the Tour 2004, he returned to the scene of his career-ending crash. He sat on the curb near the accident site and wiped away tears: "Not tears of sorrow and doubt, but rather the kind of tears that finally wash away the memories of past pain." And it brought him enlightenment: "As I sat there in Issoire and cried, I closed an important circle in my life. The good thing is, I'm not trapped in this circle, but was able to close it and step out of it. When I want to, I can turn around and look at it. But when I don't want to, I can just turn my back on it and look forward with optimism - maybe with only eye, but forward!"

Marcel Wüst, Sprinterjahre, Glanz und Schatten einer Radsportkarriere
ISBN 3-7688-5212-1
Moby Dick Verlag

Wüst and son Alexander at Karneval 2001. Courtesy Marcel Wüst, © H. A. Roth-Foto.

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