Memories of the German Diesel

Jan and Lance

Jan and Lance locked in combat on one of the many climbs in the 2003 Tour de France. Photo by Sue Routhier

Five and a half years have passed since Jan Ullrich made an unceremonious exit from the sport of cycling. It was only hours before the 2006 Tour de France that the Operation Puerto story broke. It marked the end of an era for cycling and a period of uncertainty for several years to come. And now it seems that the squeaky door has finally shut on a scandal that took down many of the greats of the late 90s/early 2000s peloton. The now meaningless and irrelevant verdict that suspends Jan Ullrich for two years is the final nail in the coffin. Done. Finally.

This brings me to a point of reflection. I haven’t really thought much about Ullrich over the last few years. His T-Mobile team (and its descendant HTC-Columbia) are now dormant. Many of the riders he shared time on the road with are now directors or retired from the sport. Ullrich himself has stayed out of the spotlight and mostly silent. And while perfectly understandable, it seems odd that someone so talented that was so much a part of the daily discussion of professional bike racing seems like such a distant memory.

I have two pictures of Ullrich on the walls of my house…both taken by the cycling photo ninja himself Graham Watson. One is of Ullrich in the yellow jersey during his magical 1997 win. The other is in the retro 50s mint green kit of Bianchi moments before crashing in the final time trial in 2003. I stare at those pictures from time to time and yet I don’t often think about Jan. I don’t know why. They’ve just become part of my collective cycling memory. But I should think about him more often because I have some great memories of his racing days.

The most obvious memory is of that 2003 race. It was a significant year for the Tour de France. It was 100 years since the Tour began. The race had the potential of crowning another five time Tour winner and only the second to achieve it consecutively. But the rider, Lance Armstrong, had had a rough season which may have partially been due to his impending divorce. Whatever the reason, the champ was not himself that year. And in the race was a former champion, Ullrich, who was desperate to prove that he still had the ability to win cycling’s biggest race. He returned with the Bianchi team in the best form he had been in for some time. And he took the champ to his absolute limit.

The 2003 race was a heavyweight fight that Jan Ullrich lost. But he took that race to the fifteenth round. And with that loss came a great deal of respect for a man who I think had always been treated a little bit unfairly. He came into the sport with such high expectations and rightly so. Winning the Tour at such a young age naturally raises expectations. But there is no shame in finishing second in cycling’s ultimate endurance test. Who could forget the time trial where he beat a dehydrated Armstrong by almost a minute and a half? How can we blame him for falling on a wet road when he was giving everything he had to pull back the remaining seconds in the final time trial? I can still see the sparks flying off the road as he skidded into the hay bale.

Think back a little further to the 2001 race when he careened off the road and disappeared into the woods. Armstrong waited for him that day and you can’t help but think that was going through his mind as Armstrong lay on the ground in ’03 as a result of a child’s musette bag. It was that same race in 2001 where he was the recipient of “The Look.” What a helpless feeling it must of been for Jan to see his nemesis take one more look behind before speeding up the road without him. I feel sorry for Jan at that moment. But I’m also glad that he continued to fight and compete. He did all that he could. The touch of hands with Armstrong at the finish line demonstrated for a brief moment the mutual respect these riders had for each other. It’s the sport of cycling at its very best.

So often it seemed like Ullrich was a punching bag for Armstrong. Think of the 2005 opening time trial as the Boss sped past Ullrich like he was standing still. Ullrich was no match for Armstrong that year and yet he was stronger than just about anyone else in the race. He continued to fight. He continued to compete. I respect that and I appreciate that as a cycling fan.

There are so many more moments to remember and enjoy from Ullrich’s gutsy performances. Perhaps what I’ll remember the most was his slow, methodical pedaling style as he ground his way up a mountain. He always seemed to be moving in slow motion. Riders would explode past him on climbs but somehow he would always pull them back. He was like a diesel engine. He would find a rhythm and keep powering those legs like giant pistons until he eventually and inevitably reeled everyone in. You’d see the finish line and Ullrich would be the first or one of the first riders approaching and you’d wonder where everyone disappeared to. It must have been painful and crushing to his rivals.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to watch Jan Ullrich race. I only wish I had a chance to see him in person. I attended the 2006 Tour and was deeply disappointed that he was not there to compete. I feel the Tour (and cycling) has been a little less entertaining ever since he left. Here’s hoping he’s now finally able to move on with his life and finally enjoy the simple act of riding a bike.


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