Cycling: Ullrich reaches crossroads in Tour of troubles

Former champion aims to put his career back on track from the ruins of alcohol, drugs and team bankruptcy
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The Independent Online

For the cynics, nothing symbolises the painfully unstable state of professional cycling so well as Jan Ullrich's latest comeback.

He won the 1997 Tour de France with Deutsche Telekom and is now riding in the legendary sky-blue colours of Bianchi - a name as representative of the sport as Ferrari is of Formula One or Manchester United of football. But the reality is that the German's latest manoeuvre is that of a star with a tarnished reputation turning his wheels in ever-smaller circles.

His public image certainly needs rehabilitating. He has been described by Lance Armstrong, winner of the Tour for the last four years, as "the only rider who really scares me", but in recent months the 29-year-old German has seemed more hell-bent on ruining his own career.

Plagued by recurring knee injuries, Ullrich finally went off the rails a year last spring when, in a blur of alcohol, the German wrapped the front bumper of his Porsche around some parked bikes in Stuttgart at three o'clock in the morning.

Worse, after his wounded knee had put him out of that year's Tour, a spot-check by anti-doping authorities in his home in Germany revealed the presence of amphetamines in his body, earning Ullrich a six-month ban. Then he quit Telekom, his only team till then, for the financially troubled Coast, and last month his new squad ground to its second halt in six weeks, suspended for a lack of funds.

The suspension turned out to be a death knell and four months into the season, with no team and so little chance of riding the Tour de France next month, his very career was in real danger. But what looked like a open-and-shut case of auf wiedersehen suddenly took a positive twist.

Coast's bike sponsors, Bianchi, the Italian manufacturer which had been quietly funding Ullrich's €3m (£2.1m) annual wage even while the German squad disintegrated all around him, decided to take over as backers of the entire team.

This unprecedented mid-season change of sponsor took place in little more than a fortnight. As a reward for Bianchi's generosity - although some would say the manoeuvre also enabled UCI, the sport's governing body, to avoid criticism for failure to scrutinise Coast's finances sufficiently - the team was automatically awarded the defunct squad's place in the this year's Tour de France.

While 18 of the 21 Coast riders, including Ullrich, signed up with Bianchi, not all were so fortunate. The entire Spanish section of the management and support staff - two managers, a team doctor, three masseurs and three mechanics - were shown the door after disagreeing over new salaries, while the former Coast official Marcel Wust claimed that "what Bianchi offered one rider wouldn't give him enough money to fill his fridge once a month."

To say that Ullrich has come down in the world is not to exaggerate: his wages in Bianchi remain approximately the same as he made in his first team, Telekom, around €2m [£1.4m] a year.

"This new team represents the internationalisation of their product," Jacques Hanegraaf, Bianchi's manager, said, "whilst for Ullrich, it's the start of a new partnership."

It is one in which the German appears keener to play down his chances than to play them up. So far his one declaration about the Tour de France 2003 has been: "I don't think I can win it. In the best of circumstances, a stage victory would be fantastic." Hanegraaf, a former Dutch national champion, is similarly guarded. "We can look forward to seeing Jan making a real Tour challenge - in 2004," he said.

Ullrich's results this season have oscillated as wildly as his recent career prospects. In the one-day Tour of Cologne in April, he made an inspired race-winning break 55 kilometres (34 miles) from the finish and ended up so far ahead of the field he had time to high-five the crowds as he sped towards the finish. But the Tour of Germany, which ends today, has been a different story, as Ullrich was helpless when the Spanish squad ONCE-Eroski launched a mass attack on the decisive fifth stage, the German losing over a minute on the race's hardest climb.

Armstrong, who began his last Tour warm-up event, the Dauphiné Libéré, maintains that Ullrich "remains a threat despite such a complicated start to the season. I saw him in April and he was in better shape than I've ever seen him before. And not many other guys have won the Tour," Armstrong said.

However, in comparison with Armstrong's well-funded infrastructure with his US Postal Service team, Ullrich's squad is running on a shoestring. The team bus has been lent by a sub-sponsor and their mechanics are working out of the back of an anonymous white transit van. At the start of the Tour of Germany none of the team cars had the new logo stickers in place.

"Starting a team mid-season is something that's never been done before," Hanegraaf said. "We had to get the new jerseys designed and made up in 36 hours. It'll take time, but we'll be up and running fully for the Tour." Behind the scenes, apart from shedding the Spanish side of the management, other changes have been less dramatic. Ullrich's brother, Stephan, continues to work as a team mechanic while his long-standing directeur sportif, Rudy Pevenage, will once more be driving the lead Bianchi car and his trainer, Peter Becker, has also been kept on.

Furthermore, Ullrich has somehow managed to retain his place in the German public's heart despite his capacity for sabotaging his own career. Almost a million viewers watched the German win the Tour of Cologne, and in his compatriots' minds at least Ullrich once more became the main challenger for Armstrong in July. In this year's Tour of Germany, organisers estimated that four million fans were present at roadside for the first five stages.

"Bianchi is like a new family," Ullrich said. "The guys who have stuck it out have taken a risk, but that risk is worth it. We're ready for a new adventure." For the former East German from Rostock, slumming it for a while may have its appealing, back-to-basics side - and Ullrich is not alone in milking cycling's past glory for all it is worth.

Even the Tour de France, which will celebrate its centenary next month, is attempting, Janus-like, to look forwards and backwards at the same time, with visits to cycling's so-called hallowed sites like Alpe D'Huez and the Tourmalet, as well as the six original host cities of 1903.

For Ullrich, playing the nostalgia market in such a context is a tactic which may pay short-term dividends. But it will inevitably raise expectations for a champion who has made inconsistency his trademark. Faced with a Herculean figure like Armstrong, fulfilling his own re-emerging ambitions could prove an uphill task for Ullrich.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly