Preface

The first thing I ever wrote about professional cycling was a sixth-form German project about Jan Ullrich. A few months earlier, I had sat gawping at a TV screen as, in the space of a quarter of an hour during the 1997 Tour de France’s Pyrenean ‘Queen Stage’, Ullrich seemed to redraw the aesthetics and horizons of the sport. A sport that had known great dynasties before but never – as far as I knew or could even imagine – swivelled as professional cycling’s destiny appeared to on that July afternoon. I was sixteen at the time – an age at which, as Julian Barnes wrote in his first novel Metroland, ‘there were more meanings, more interpretations, a greater variety of available truths . . . Things contained more.’ Among the other side effects of adolescence there is, indeed, an acute sensitization that embalms the images and ardours of that age in nostalgia later in life. Nonetheless, before commencing this book I already recalled, and now know for sure, that there were many others, and elders, upon whom Ullrich’s performance in Andorra that day left the same imprint – the same thrill. With every strike of Ullrich’s pedals came a thudding intuition that future and present tense had swapped places or bled together into one, indistinguishable, inconvertible truth: that from this day forth cycling would belong to Jan Ullrich of Team Telekom and Rostock.

To claim that the central or sole motivation for writing this biography was to understand only what went wrong would be reductive and also, from the outset, dismissive in the way that coverage of Ullrich has consistently been for the last fifteen years. It is hopefully not too big a spoiler to reveal that Jan Ullrich remains, per the annals and minus the caveats, Germany’s greatest ever cyclist and also its only Tour de France winner. Moreover, there have been many meteors with similar, soaring trajectories and sharper descents – fellow phenoms who won cycling’s great races at twenty-one and twenty-two and then faded into anonymity, whether overburdened by expectations or overtaken by their own hubris and, soon thereafter, their peers. Ullrich, by contrast, carried on winning and, if only at selected times every summer, achieving similar levels of excellence right up until his last dance in 2006. For a decade he also retained his status as a German national talisman. As such, as tempting at it has often proven to cast him as a flash-in-the-pan, a perennial groomsman, a misfit or a flop, bare statistics do not support that narrative. Neither can they explain a public affection that remained intact long after some of his most famous wins had been asterisked – a fondness that somehow emulsified the most contradictory ingredients; on one hand awe and the other a sympathy that eventually devolved into pity.

Over the course of his career, Ullrich’s admirers were taken on a voyage between emotional extremities, in this sense becoming men and women after their hero’s heart. The memoir he released in 2003 was called Ganz oder Gar NichtAll or Not At All – and this was how he came to view or rationalize a life upon which everyone would at some point cast judgement. His close-season excesses became infamous, the subject of derision, and yet teammates marvelled at the sacrifices and exertions he annually undertook to correct his course. Every winter became its own cautionary tale, every springtime a new recovery memoir. As Ullrich’s contemporary and fellow East German Jens Voigt once told the journalist Andreas Burkert, ‘Characters like Ullrich fascinate people. They’re right up in the heavens then they fall really, really deep, only to rise again. They go through life like normal people.’

In this book we will hear from others who extol Ullrich’s ‘everyman appeal’, although one could easily make the opposite case – that it was his uncommonness that induced devotion among common men. Or, put another way, the feeling that, if Ullrich could only bring himself to do ordinary, mundane, everyman things – stay relatively fit in winter, control his appetite, handle his talent with care – he would one day reveal himself as the pedalling übermensch, superman, we glimpsed in 1997. He had demonstrated that potential once, and in subsequent years all who had witnessed it waited, enraptured, salivating at the prospect of a second look. As another contemporary, David Millar, put it to me, ‘Jan was the ultimate missile that never got used. I think that’s one of the things that makes his story so appealing: you had this guy who you felt could have nuked everyone and everything, but he ended up as almost this benign force. That almost makes him the perfect counterpoint to Armstrong.’

Ah, yes, Armstrong. He who shall not be mentioned. Not ‘the disgraced Lance Armstrong’ who occupies the public consciousness now, but rather the cyclist who was – without question and whatever we think about his redacted legacy – a force that steered, overshadowed and to a large extent defined Ullrich, at least in the public’s eyes. ‘Jan was my North Star,’ Armstrong says – and the roles were also inverted. Some will bridle at the prominence afforded to Lance Armstrong’s reminiscences on these pages – they want him forgotten, cancelled, deplatformed – but this book is no place to relitigate crimes acknowledged and punished years ago. Armstrong was the first interview I requested during the research process and, in style as much as substance, his retellings were also pitch-perfect reminders of the traits that made his generation-defining rivalry with Ullrich so compelling, in spite of a lopsided final scoreline. If Ullrich’s story is of a would-be superman who lacked the Average Joe know-how to button on his cape, Armstrong stopped at nothing to escape and disguise his mortality – but ultimately could not hide his feet of clay.

There are those who contend it all ended in a moral, or immoral, stalemate – a resounding null and void, not just between Ullrich and Armstrong but between almost everyone who raced with and against them in the late nineties and early 2000s. The same people might even see poetic justice in the fact that some of the main material benefactors also ended up paying for an ethical bankruptcy. It is certainly sobering to reflect that, in the summer of 1999, the haut monde of international cycling indisputably consisted of five athletes – Frank Vandenbroucke, Marco Pantani, Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich and Mario Cipollini. A twenty-year check on that quintet today would make eye-wateringly grim reading, comprising as it does, respectively, two deaths by drug overdose; the most spectacular defrocking in the history of professional sport; Ullrich whose life had ‘tipped from sporting into human tragedy’, to borrow Die Zeit’s 2018 summation; and Cipollini who in 2022 was bracing himself for the third year of hearings in a case brought by his wife for assault and stalking charges, both of which he denies.

It is impossible to know how much and in what ways, subtle or otherwise, cycling brought chaos to these men’s lives, having previously exalted and to a certain extent shaped them – as it does to everyone who falls under this sport’s hypnotic spell. ‘How do we know what is really happening in Jan’s life, or anyone’s? How can we judge them?’ Bjarne Riis, Ullrich’s old teammate, asked me. Riis is right. As another contemporary, Erwann Menthéour, lamented after seeing another scion of the same generation, Philippe Gaumont, follow his own drug- and dope-littered path to an early grave, ‘These were guys riding 35,000 kilometres a year, people were in awe of them, and then all of a sudden they were treated like shits. And somewhere, even if they knew that they were only doing what everyone else did, those guys also had to look themselves in the mirror and feel shame, guilt, because that was what everyone was telling them that they should feel.’

Perhaps, then, we can favour compassion over condemnation, and humbly acknowledge that a biography is at best an artist’s impression – while at the same time believing that it can satisfy a thirst for better, if not total understanding. In Ullrich’s case, that craving is especially strong because of the affinities he inspired, but also because of the way his career ended and its largely unexplained, unseen postscript. Before that, there were already numerous barriers to knowing him better: physical, like the 1,400-kilometre electrified and barbed-wire fence behind which he grew up in the former East Germany; linguistic, in a sport long since colonized by French, Belgians, Dutch, Spanish and Italians, and which was becoming staunchly anglophone in the final years of his career; and cultural, in a professional world so paranoid and secretive, with its endemic ‘omertà’ or law of silence, that a childhood in the DDR may in some respects have served as the perfect preparation.

So there is a lot to discover. Ullrich committed his own memories to print in the aforementioned autobiography, Ganz oder Gar Nicht, in 2004 – though that truncated, carefully filtered, first-person perspective is but one piece in a complex puzzle. Ullrich didn’t concern himself unduly with the legacies of the DDR, either in his own worldview or that of fellow Germans. He didn’t explore the backgrounds, passions and opinions of his coaches and teammates. There were just a few bare lines pondering Armstrong’s character, ending with the tart conclusion, ‘I wouldn’t like to be like him.’ Doping was hardly mentioned. And, above all, he was writing before the thermonuclear blast in 2006 that liquidated what remained of his career, a large part of his identity and almost the entire sport in Germany, ahead of his related personal traumas in subsequent years. He was also writing a decade before Armstrong’s own immolation, which torched and retrospectively rearranged the landscape of their generation even further.

A more complete analysis was therefore overdue. Throughout the process there were dozens who declined interviews or expressed their wish for the story – and Ullrich – to be left alone. In the main they were speaking out of kindness and concern for an old friend – but were also sometimes failing to acknowledge the widespread appetite for a non-judgemental re-evaluation. One chapter is entitled ‘The Truth Will Set You Free’ after a bible verse, a famous self-help bestseller and a pertinent engraving above the entrance of the University of Freiburg – but the maxim seemed not to have gained any traction among many of Ullrich’s friends and former associates. Protective, suspicious and exasperated, they have come to believe that every pen is poisoned, every motive impure. They plead for Ullrich’s honour to be restored but are too scared to argue his case lest they also incriminate themselves. As a result, a lot of what was always attractive about Ullrich – his warmth, his sense of humour, his generosity, his dazzling natural talent – has lost many of its most passionate and well-informed advocates. As the German journalist Michael Ostermann told me, ‘When people actually meet him, they really love him, but part of the problem is that he doesn’t speak and his friends won’t speak either.’

Meaning that the catcalls have drowned out the hosannas, malicious tongues have outnumbered the voices of reason.

Fortunately there were still scores of character witnesses who have added layers, shades and new perspectives. Hopefully we are left with a portrait quite unlike the gaudy caricatures that are many fans’ only keepsakes of Ullrich’s decade in cycling’s upper echelons.

A quarter of a century has passed since, to phrase it as the German media did at the time, a twenty-three-year-old, freckle-faced redhead created sporting history for his recently unified homeland – and a sixteen-year-old kid from a country with even less cycling heritage than Germany was among the millions watching, captivated. My innocence survived twelve months, until it was ripped away by the Festina doping scandal. Within three years I would begin a career in journalism that obliterated whatever romanticism was left, with its funereal procession of scandals over the next ten years culminating, yes, with He Who Has Already Been Mentioned.

I was not naive when I began working on this book, and there is certainly no excuse for being wide- or even misty-eyed today. Nevertheless, some of that 1997-vintage wonder is still alive in me, just as it is in others, and will probably never fade. After the Second World War, Germany committed to a long period of repentance and repair, but above all understanding, that they called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, literally ‘coping with’ or ‘overcoming the past’. It took many forms, from war crimes trials to television documentaries and public monuments. But above all it was about learning. As an influential force behind the process, the judge Fritz Bauer, once said, ‘Nothing belongs solely to the past, everything is contained within the present, and can still become the future.’1

The Vergangenheitsbewältigung of Jan Ullrich’s life and times is a much less fraught and indeed comparatively trivial business, but there are some common themes. After two and a half decades, enough time has certainly now passed for more of the truth, and maybe even some reconciliation.

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