Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour de France winner, may be missing from this year's race because of a persistent knee injury.
Described by the three-times Tour winner Lance Armstrong as the one rival he fears in the peloton, the German was the only rider last year even to attempt to challenge the Texan's near-monotonous domination of cycling's premier event. Ullrich took the Tour at the precociously young age of 23 and has finished it as runner-up four times, twice behind the American.
However, the Telekom rider's determination to topple the apparently invincible Armstrong in July appears to have badly backfired this spring. An inflamed ligament in the 28-year-old's right knee has meant Ullrich has pulled out of four successive races at the last moment and he has not been able to train on the bike at all for the last 10 days.
"He did more weight-training than usual in the winter to try and get a better condidtion than ever before and, ironically enough, this has been the result," a Telekom spokesman said. While the team director Walter Godefroot said, "There are still three months to go to the Tour," it is well-known that Ullrich, who has only ridden one five-day in January so far, needs a long, steady build-up for what is his only real objective of the year.
In 2001, the German rode the three-week Giro D'Italia as preparation for the Tour, and accumulated more than 60 days' racing before July. (Armstrong rode only 30 races in the same period.) Flooded with telephone calls yesterday, the Telekom press department was fighting hard to keep the German media from over-reacting, and one team official insisted that "Jan not doing the Tour is completely out of the question."
However the official would not say whether Ullrich's injury was worsening or not, and grudgingly admitted that "there is no first comeback race planned for Jan as yet." Nobody at Telekom needed reminding that Ullrich badly hurt the same knee in a race in June 1999 and that the injury prevented him from starting that year's Tour de France.
Furthermore, Telekom's sprinter Erik Zabel failed to take a fifth victory in one of the team's other key objectives, the Milan-San Remo Classic last Saturday, further raising pressure on the team to do well in July.
The sight of Lance Armstrong finishing in the front group of 44 riders in the 300 kilometre [186 miles] Italian race, his first of the season, will not have raised the German squad's spirits, nor the Texan's comments afterwards that he was "stronger than this time last year."
Should Ullrich not ride this summer, it is extremely hard to see who will be able to prevent Armstrong from taking a fourth Tour. As if the Texan's path was not smooth enough already, the Basque rider Joseba Beloki, third overall for two years running, has also failed to race more than one day this year because of an Achilles tendon problem.
"I hope we are all there in July," Beloki said, "otherwise people will always be doing down the result you got." His absence, and Ullrich's, would also turn the Tour into even more of a one-man event than it has been for the last three years.
* Laurent Jalabert, the former world No 1 and world time trial champion, is suffering from an unspecified virus and will not participate in a Belgian race this weekend, his Danish CSC Tiscali team said. The Frenchman, who was scheduled to take part in the Criterium International in the Ardennes, will take a week off instead.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling WeeklyReuse content