Cycling: Ullrich turns the corner to challenge Armstrong

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The Independent Online

If Jan Ullrich looks a shade smug as he sits talking at one end of a dining room table in a German health resort in southern Mallorca, he is probably right to be.

The 30-year-old Ullrich is now leading what is arguably the most powerful Tour de France line-up the race has ever known, his financial headaches of last year have been replaced by a regular wage of around €1.5m [£1.02m] a year from one of Germany's most powerful companies, T-Mobile, and he is still tipped to be the only credible threat to Lance Armstrong winning a record-breaking sixth consecutive Tour de France.

Just to give Ullrich even more reason to look like the cat that got the cream, T-Mobile's former incarnation as a cycling squad, Telekom, could hardly wait to kick him out of the squad in late 2002, having become convinced that the 1997 Tour winner was more trouble - following positive dope tests, recurring injuries and a rather lacklustre enthusiasm for training - than he was worth.

But three weeks in last July changed all that: lying between his undignified exit and the return of the prodigal son to his life-long squad, was Ullrich's most convincing ride in the Tour since 1998. He was welcomed back to Telekom with open arms.

Few could forget Ullrich's achievements in the 2003 Tour. Riding for a team, Bianchi, so economically pushed that the team mechanics were working out of a hired transit van up until a fortnight before the Tour, Ullrich in turn pushed Armstrong to the point where the American won the race by the comparatively tiny margin of 61 seconds.

In the process, the Texan also suffered his first major defeat at the hands of a rival, Ullrich, in the first long time trial of the Tour - which was probably when the Telekom managers rapidly began doing sums in their heads to see how many euros they would need to entice back the bad boy of cycling.

"The point when I suddenly realised that Mr 'Unbeatable' Armstrong was in fact beatable was in the last climb of the time trial I won. On just one hill he lost nearly a minute," Ullrich says as he plays diffidently with a dinner fork, looking for all the world as if beating Armstrong - something he has failed to do on three occasions - was as easy as pronging a nearby bratwurst.

"When I won that day, I wasn't really thinking about my problems of the past. Rather I was looking towards the future. But it's always the same with me, whether I win or lose I spend very little time reflecting on what happened. I'm already looking ahead to the next battle."

With a typically American win-or-quit attitude, Armstrong had often observed - prior to taking that panning last July - that he could not understand why Ullrich had not given up trying to beat him. Yet more reasons for Ullrich to look smug.

But the German insists, in any case, that he has "never ridden a Tour without thinking I couldn't win it. Those second places [which now total five in his career] were all well earned, and I can think of a lot worse places to finish in the Tour."

In fact, as T-Mobile officials are keen to point out, Ullrich has never finished lower than second in the last eight Tours. This rather avoids the point that in the two years in which Ullrich failed to start, one was because of a mysterious knee injury and the other was because of a combination of drunk-driving offences, testing positive for ecstasy consumed in a nightclub at 3am and lax training.

Bizarrely enough, the German's popularity has soared because of, rather than despite, his roller-coaster past. When Ullrich attacked Armstrong on the Tourmalet last July there was a huge cheer from most of the journalists watching the race in the press room.

Compared with Armstrong's icy professionalism, Ullrich's failure to handle the pressure at times has gained him - somehow - a reputation as a plucky underdog, becoming the Tour's heart as opposed to Armstrong's overly perfect head.

"He's changed a lot," says Rolf Aldag, now one of just two former Telekom riders who had escorted Ullrich to victory in the 1997 Tour still to be present in the team. "Before he was just content to copy what [the former Telekom leader and 1996 Tour-winner] Bjarne Riis did. If Riis went to such and such a race as preparation, Jan would do the same. Not anymore."

The Jan Ullrich Mark II is, the man himself insists, a different story altogether, one who is determined, post 2003, that he can forge his own path.

"I can appreciate now what I didn't see before, that I'm not going to be young forever, that If I am going to win the Tour, then it would have to be within the next three years," he muses. "But I never wanted to win as many Tours as possible, full stop. It's more a question of getting to the top of the world hierachy in the sport, exploiting my talent 100 per cent."

An ambitious task, which inevitably involves toppling Armstrong, at least once and most likely in 2004 to boot. Furthermore, team support for Ullrich in a squad packed with talented Tour riders will almost certainly crumble once more should he fail this July.

Should he succeed, though, then the chances are that both he and the T-Mobile management - thankful that they finally backed the right horse at the right time - will all be looking even more smug.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly