Cycling: Ullrich set to unseat Armstrong

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The Independent Online

Even though 2003 is still not over, the psychological battle for the 2004 Tour de France has already begun.

If the five-times Tour winner Lance Armstrong is to be believed, next July he will no longer be the favourite, rather the mantle of top rider for cycling's blue riband event has now passed on to his key rival, Jan Ullrich.

But there is a catch: Ullrich's cycling career has been as chequered and tormented as that of his sport's recent history. Five times runner-up and a Tour winner in 1997, since 2002 the German has also had to cope with a positive dope test for amphetamines, a car crash while drunk-driving and a team, Coast, which collapsed through bankruptcy.

Bizarrely, Ullrich seemed to thrive on all of this. Leading a team cobbled together at the last minute by the Italian bicycle manufacturer Bianchi in the Tour, he ran Armstrong closer this year than ever before, finally finishing runner-up but just 61 seconds behind the Texan, a comparatively tiny margin.

In 2004, his return to T-Mobile, the latest incarnation of Telekom, the team for which he has ridden for all bar one year of his eight-year career, has therefore been heralded as a major coup for the German squad.

"They've finally decided to follow Armstrong's team's tactics and build a squad dedicated exclusively to the Tour, with Ullrich as the leader," says the German former pro Udo Bolts, who rode with Ullrich as a Tour domestique in all of his Telekom years. "Tactically Armstrong rides more intelligently than Ullrich but then in the Tour it's generally the strongest rider with the strongest team who wins, full stop."

Certainly the sensation that T-Mobile have quietly been raising an army to take on Armstrong on his own terms is now unavoidable. Led by Ullrich, there are those who believe that his Kazakh team-mate Alexandre Vinokourov, third in this year's Tour, is capable of giving both the German and the American a run for their money next July.

Ullrich himself is currently brushing off the Armstrong claims. "That's typical Lance. He calls me his biggest motivation. He loves the man-to-man fight but this is just to disturb me," he recently told the German magazine Stern.

This idea was confirmed by T-Mobile's spokesman, Luuc Eisengaa, who told The Independent: "Of course we think that Jan can win. But we believe that Lance Armstrong remains the favourite for the 2004 Tour." In a rare burst of self-analysis, Ullrich is cautiously optimistic: he now argues that "I'm my own biggest rival" - not Armstrong. But there is no doubt he can be his own worst enemy as has been proved by his past sloppy training habits and tendency to gulp down too much of his favourite food, German potato cake, rather than concentrate on his weight. This is in stark contrast to Armstrong, who weighs every gram of food he consumes, in and out of season.

Ullrich has already presented T-Mobile with publicity problems. Owed an estimated €600,000 (£435,000) by Bianchi, the German walked out 10 minutes before he was due to attend a T-Mobile press-launch on a cruiser in Cologne in late November because of fears that the Italians would not pay up. Although team officials went almost as deep a shade of pink with embarrassment as T-Mobile's logo colours, Ullrich's no-show was hardly important in the long run. Nor did the press seem to mind - he was recently voted German sportsman of the year by the local media.

However, should he go off the rails yet again, then missing the boat in Cologne will be taken as the first sign that the €1.4m yearly salary he receives from T-Mobile has once more softened his resolve to struggle against the Armstrong hegemony.

What may finally tip the balance Ullrich's way are factors beyond his control. Armstrong has just lost the strongest climber on his team, the double Tour of Spain-winner Roberto Heras, and following his divorce, he will be spending less time racing in Europe and more time at home training during the spring.

Furthermore, Postal are now believed to be facing financial headaches: they were one of six teams which last week failed to register with cycling's first division in 2004 because of incomplete financial documentation.

The chances that Postal would actually fail to make the two-week deadline imposed by the UCI, cycling's governing body, to get their documentation are very slim, but for Ullrich such potential economic problems are definitely a thing of the past. Whether he will now be able just to concentrate on racing and finally topple the American is another story altogether.