Strange odyssey of heir apparent

the rise of Jan Ullrich, once pupil, now master
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Jan Ullrich is doing wonders in Germany for the bike trade and the television ratings. The promise he showed in last year's Tour de France is close to fulfilment as this year's race heads into the Alps.

As the first German in 19 years to wear the yellow jersey, Ullrich has arrived just in time for German sport. With the Boris Becker and Steffi Graf era fading, tennis is losing ground in Germany, while boxing, too, is taking the count.

The country has no real tradition in cycling, but now everyone, it seems, is buying bikes, and on Tuesday, when Ullrich took over the leader's colours, German television's Tour transmission attracted six million viewers.

Eight years ago, a fascinated 15-year-old watched on television as Greg LeMond swiped the yellow jersey from Laurent Fignon by eight seconds on the last day in the Champs-Elysees.

It was a big moment for the then East German, but it could not match the day when, after the Berlin Wall was demolished, he could afford to buy his first pair of sports shoes with deutschmarks.

The Wall coming down also opened the borders of international cycling to Ullrich, who had won his first race when he was nine, who left his Rostock home four years later for the Youth Sports School in Berlin. His brother Stefan went with him because he had shown promise as a long-distance runner, but it was to be Jan who was to go the full distance in his chosen sport.

Ullrich was three when his father left their mother to bring up three sons, but once his racing career began to take shape under the guidance of Peter Becker, his coach became the father he never knew.

Becker had spotted Ullrich competing in cyclo-cross, cycling's winter cross-country sport, and immediately took him into his influential club, and has shaped his career since that day.

Ullrich's victory in the world amateur road race championship in Oslo four years ago brought him to the notice of professional team managers. A year later they began reaching for their pens as he sped home for a bronze medal in the world time trial championship, 1min 50sec behind Chris Boardman in Sicily.

Walter Godefroot, the Belgian manager of Deutsche Telekom, got there first, and in 1994, in a probationary period with the team, Ullrich won a stage in the Tour of Hawaii.

Then in 1996, assistant team manager Rudy Pevenage advised Godefroot that Ullrich was ready for bigger things. The Tour de France beckoned, but so too did the Atlanta Olympics.

"You are too young to do both," the German Cycling Federation advised, so Ullrich had to choose. He arrived in the Netherlands, where the Tour began last year, for his baptism in three weeks of suffering and survival as the helpmate to the Dane, Bjarne Riis.

Riis dominated the Tour, but with a day to go before the final parade into Paris, Ullrich came out of the shadows to dent a few reputations. He averaged 50.43kph [31.5mph] through the vineyards of St Emilion to win a 63.5km time trial, beating Miguel Indurain, the Olympic time trial champion and acknowledged maestro of against-the-clock racing, by 56 seconds.

Spain's Abraham Olano, the silver medallist in Atlanta, was third, 2min 6sec slower, and Riis fourth in 2:18. Ullrich's performance was the fifth fastest in Tour history. Next day he joined Riis on the podium in Paris, and Godefroot, not given to wild statements, tipped him to take the yellow jersey next time.

"He has all the right talents and with the correct preparation he can win the Tour," the Belgian predicted. Indurain, the five times winner of the Tour, went further, saying: "He is sure to win a Tour, perhaps several."

Germans recalled their last Tour hero, Didi Thurau, who in 1977 wore yellow for 15 days via six stage wins. That was his debut at the age of 22. So when Ullrich showed real Tour temperament at the same age, they knew that they were on the way to having a 10th German don the yellow jersey, 65 years after Kurt Stopel had been the first to pull on the colours.

Now Germany waits to celebrate, but a week is a long time in the Tour. The Alpine offensive opens today to find the real champion, and Riis believes Ullrich may be almost there. "If Jan continues like this, almost no one can beat him," the Dane said. "And one will have to consider oneself content to have a place on the podium in Paris.

"Jan is a nice chap. He has been very fair with me and so I must in turn be fair to him and if I realise I can't win the Tour then, OK, I'll do all I can so Jan wins."

Banesto, Indurain's former team which now has Olano as its leader, have been reported to be showing interest in Ullrich. Jose Miguel Echavarri, their team manager, would not be drawn, saying, "It would be better for German cycling if he stayed with Telekom, as it was good for Spanish cycling that Indurain was always with us."