Cycling: Ullrich comes of age with Tour triumph

ROBIN NICHOLL with the Tour de France
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The Independent Online
Jan Ullrich may be "green" but he is in yellow, and in the Tour de France that is paramount. He is 23, inexperienced, nervous, occasionally afraid, and yesterday he won the world's greatest bike race.

When Ullrich finally matures, he will be indomitable. For now the German is just unbeatable, as 12 days in the leader's yellow jersey has shown. His winning margin of 9min 9sec over the Frenchman Richard Virenque is the biggest for 13 years in a Tour that was the second fastest in 84 years.

Ullrich handled the Alps and the Pyrenees, and all that his rivals, particularly the cocksure Virenque, threw at him, but he could barely face the daily visit to the podium for a clean yellow jersey.

"He has not realised fully what he has achieved," Walter Godefroot, the Belgian in charge of Ullrich's Deutsche Telekom team, said. "He is so tense on the podium, and after one stage he hid in my car. He was afraid of the crowds. He could not understand the commotion. He doesn't say much. He is shy but disciplined. Yet he is so nervous that he had an attack of diarrhoea before the mountainous stage to l'Alpe d'Huez."

Yesterday, in the Champs Elysees, an international audience saluted the first German to win the Tour.

"I have not been able to sleep as I would like because of all the interviews," Ullrich said. "Now I am a little tired."

Virenque, who claimed the red polka dot jersey as best climber for a fourth consecutive year, praised the efforts of his Festina team in helping him to second place. "If we had not been there the Tour would have been boring," he said. "I did my best and now I belong among the Tour favourites."

Ullrich completed the 3,944km (2,482 miles) at an average speed of 39.237kph (24.381mph). The fastest, 39.504 kph, by Miguel Indurain was in 1992 when the tall Spaniard won his second Tour. Then Indurain was 28, and had three more victories to come. He and Ullrich are in the same mould, physically and mentally. The big difference is that the man from Rostock has a five- year start on Indurain, whose first Tour in 1985 ended after the fourth stage. Jose Miguel Echavarri wanted his protege, then 21, to get the feel of such a big occasion.

Indurain did not step on the Paris podium until he was 27. Ullrich, however, was second on his debut last year, and then after his scorching time trial at St Emilion, Godefroot predicted: "He has the right qualities and with the correct preparation he can win next year."

Yet Godefroot was surprised at Ullrich's emergence. "In 1996 it was intended that he should pull out after a certain time. Yet he surprised me day after day. Then after phenomenal work for Bjarne Riis, he won the time- trial.

"This year he surprised me even more with his victory in Andorra. That day he proved that he had the qualities of a big champion. Then in the mountains he showed that he is maturing. He was alone but took the right decision to wait for his team-mates."

Godefroot, a proficient Tour rider 25 years ago, believes that Ullrich's personality has yet to emerge because of the dictatorial discipline of the East German "school" where he learned the basics of racing.

This is only Germany's third major tour triumph after Rudy Altig in the Tour of Spain 35 years ago, Rolf Wolfshohl in the same event in 1965, and the modest Ullrich is losing sleep because of the pressure from the German media. To avoid it he will not return to his home at Merdingen, in the Black Forest, after the Tour, but will race in the Netherlands and Austria.

Godefroot spotted Ullrich when he won the amateur world road race championship in Oslo four years ago. "Any German who wins with such strength is one for my team," he said, and months later Ullrich signed a one-year contract.

His real power did not show until a French race last year. A Belgian team had three men to assist their sprinter Wilfried Nelissen, but Telekom needed only Ullrich to help Erik Zabel.

"Where did you dig up this freak," Nelissen's team-mate, Peter de Clercq, asked Godefroot. "I did not realise his capabilities, and then my assistant, Rudy Pevenage, insisted that Ullrich was ready for the Tour. I had to drop a rider to put him in, and that Tour result was unimaginable. Bjarne Riis and Ullrich first and second, five stage wins, and Zabel won the green jersey."

It is even better this year. Godefroot's men are going to add the team award to Zabel's second green jersey, and Ullrich is again the best young rider. They also have five stage wins; two from Ullrich and three from Zabel.

Zabel, disqualified from another win in the first week, was beaten to the Champs Elysees finish yesterday by the Italian Nicola Minali.

Amid the acclaim, there is a warning note for Ullrich in the miserable final week of his Danish team-mate Riis. He had gone to the brink of quitting when a pain-killing tablet upset his stomach. Then his digestive juices took another drubbing when, in a rage, Riis flung his defective bike into a field during Saturday's time-trial.

"I am a little sad but Jan is a good friend. I did a lot to help him," Riis said, who finished more than 26 minutes behind Ullrich. Last year, Ullrich contributed on behalf of Denmark's first triumph. The Tour wheel has turned full circle.

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