Ullrich cool as a mountain breeze

Andrew Longmore reports from Alpe d'Huez as the Tour leader confirms his quality
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The Independent Online
Flying up a mountain in the company of a Eurosport commentator is not a voyage for the faint-hearted. On race day Alpe d'Huez is like Peking tilted. Cyclists jostle for position, families squat for hours on the low walls which protect traffic from a rocky oblivion and a steady flow of pedestrians throng the narrow fairways until their legs give way. The horn is the main weapon of attack for journalists heading for the summit and when David Duffield is running late for his stint at the microphone it is every man, woman and child for themselves.

Like everything on the Tour the most famous climb has its hierarchy. The part-timers line the route at the foot of the 16- kilometre ascent, the real aficionados can be found 1,800 metres closer to the clouds, bedecked in the colours of their heroes - even down to a balding Pantani lookalike on the final hairpin. These are the diehards, the three-day campers, the Danish, whose flags outnumber the other nations by three to one. If Bjarne Riis is to make one last stand it has to be here, urged on by countrymen who have turned the southernmost tip of Holland - as L'Alpe d'Huez was once known - into a suburb of Copenhagen. Deep down, they have also come to salute a new German champion.

In the village de depart, where the gossip flows as freely as the murky coffee, the talk yesterday morning was no longer of who will win or by how much, but for how long. Bernard Hinault, the sage of the Tour, says five years is possible and few would disagree. Jan Ullrich is 23, but has shown such assurance over mountains and in time trials this past week the peloton has already accepted its new master. The Ullrich years threaten to stretch into the next millennium.

"He's awesome," Henk Vogels, a domestique with the Gan team, said yesterday. "But then I raced against him in the juniors and he was awesome then. The only surprise is that he has improved so quickly." So quickly that he has turned sorcerer without serving his apprenticeship. "Ullrich? I have no idea what he is like. We never see him in the peloton," Franck Vandenbroucke, one of a crop of talented young Belgians, said. "Ullrich le phenomene" as the headline in La Liberation put it.

The parallels are uncomfortable for those who thought the retirement of Miguel Indurain might usher in a new era of democracy. Like Indurain, Ullrich has bellows for lungs and a manner which discourages conversation and opposition. His power output, about 550 watts from his 73-kilogram frame, matches the Spaniard and his laid-back style of riding, rarely rising from his saddle, never showing pain, is ominously familiar too. Victory in Paris next Sunday would make the former world amateur champion the youngest Tour winner since Laurent Fignon 14 years ago, put him a year ahead of Eddie Merckx and in the same prodigious category as Jacques Anquetil and Hinault himself.

"He reminds me of a young Fignon," Stephen Roche, whose own Tour victory was fashioned in these parts 10 years ago, said. "He has the potential to win four or five Tours, but people jump to conclusions too quickly. He's not some kind of superman. No one knows how he will cope with the pressures, people patting him on the back and wanting interviews."

Ullrich has shown little sign of stress so far. His work up Alpe d'Huez, when he broke Riis and Virenque, his main challengers, and then followed Pantani to the summit, confirmed the impression gained in the Pyrenees. As an exercise in control it was pure Indurain. Riis lost a further two and a half minutes. But in reality, his Tour was lost earlier.

The Dane misplayed his hand as early as the evening of the first stage when, separated from his team-mates by one of the many crashes in a frenetic first week, he lashed his team for not relaying him back to the leading group. "Two leaders, one chef," Walter Godefroot, their canny directeur sportif, had put it. That evening, at a fraught team meeting, Riis in effect asked for a vote of confidence from his team. He had chosen the wrong ground for the fight.

"That wasn't his smartest move," Roche said. "If you are a Dane within a German team you have to know when to talk and when to shut up. I think that reflected how unsure Riis was of himself." The pressure was on the Dane from the start.

By the end of the first mountainous stage, 182 kilometres from Pau to Loudenvielle Vallee du Louron, Riis knew the writing was on the wall. Dropped in the final climb to the peak of Col de Val Louron as Ullrich, like Hinault supposedly pacing Lemond up the Alps in 1986, began to test his team leader's limits, Riis lost 27 seconds on the stage and ended the day one minute and 30 seconds behind his team-mate. Outwardly, the team still maintained that Riis was the chef, but by the following evening the internal politics of Telekom had been clarified along with the probable destination of the yellow jersey.

The official handover of power came on a cruel final climb to Arcalis, as Ullrich detached himself from the leading group and dropped back to his team car, an audacious manoeuvre which held the key to this year's Tour. Like a good subordinate, Ullrich needed permission to strike and though Godefroot later denied any collusion, the gist of the conversation became clear in the following devastating minutes. Without rising from his saddle, Ullrich rode past the toiling leaders to become the first German to wear the yellow jersey since Dietrich Thurau 20 years ago. Riis was left gasping, three minutes and 23 seconds behind.

It was hard not to feel sorry for the ailing Dane, the super domestique who belatedly discovered his own talents only to become the victim of the mileage invested in others. Nine years was too much to give away and the Dane's balding head, polished with sweat and swaying from the effort, presented a stark contrast to Ullrich's youthful curls. Riis's brief reign is over. There is only one chief now.