Tales from the Tour de Suisse peloton, June 20, 2006
Is Jan Ullrich's win in the Tour de Suisse a sign of what is to come in July, or will this represent the high point of his season, as it did back in 2004? Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes listened to what he had to say at the post-race press conference on Sunday.
Earlier this year, former team-mate Bjarne Riis blasted Jan Ullrich's early season preparation, saying that the German's form was ‘absolutely catastrophic'. At the time the CSC's boss was in Tuscany working with Ivan Basso in the lead up to the Giro d'Italia and, according to Danish newspaper BT, was dismissive about Ullrich's prospects for the Tour de France.
"It's clear that he doesn't like to ride a bike, which is why I can't understand why he wants to be a cyclist," Riis was quoted as saying. "It's a waste of talent. He has to wake up soon. I believe in him less and less."
Ullrich was reported to have trained hard in the winter but his racing debut this season was delayed considerably due to a knee injury. He finally pinned on a number in the Tour de Romandie, where he finished a distant 115th overall. He then went on to the Giro d'Italia and while he was relatively anonymous there, he did beat Basso to win the stage 11 time trial.
At the time he stressed that the Giro was simply a preparation race and his performances in the mountains there were no reflection of how he would do in the Tour de France. Following a withdrawal from the Giro two days from the end due to a slight back problem, Ullrich rested and recuperated from the Grand Tour, then started to build up again for the Tour de Suisse. His performances there showed that he has made great progress since competing in Italy.
Ullrich was clearly in great shape from the start of the Swiss ProTour race. His T-Mobile team rode strongly for him from the off, riding in front of the peloton when no other teams would undertake to do so, and generally doing all that was necessary to ensure he lost no time to the other big contenders. Although Ullrich said afterwards that he took things day by day and had gone into the race with no overall aspirations, it was clear from their pattern of racing that T-Mobile had at least some interest in the general classification.
The 1997 Tour de France winner's move towards the top of the leaderboard came on the first mountain stage to Leukerbad. For the first four days he had finished with the peloton, riding strongly on the climbs and even getting involved in a few breakaways, but not taking any time back. But the first summit finish saw him place sixth, 17 seconds behind the day's winner Steve Morabito (Phonak) and, crucially, alongside or ahead of the other riders who were likely challengers for the overall title.
Ullrich started the mountain stage to La Punt seventh overall and in placing third there, moved up to the same position in the general classification. The bunch finish for second behind the following day's victor Oscar Freire saw no change to the top of the leaderboard, although a split in the peloton saw Ullrich pick up four seconds on overall leader Koldo Gil Perez (Saunier Duval) and thus close to within 50 seconds of the yellow jersey. That put pressure on Gil to increase his buffer on the mountainous eighth stage but despite a big attack on the first category climb of Gotthardpass, there was a regrouping near the summit and he, Gil and second-placed Jörg Jaksche all came home in the same time at the finish.
Gil was downbeat at the post-race press conference, conceding that his 50 seconds lead would be hard to protect in the concluding time trial, and so it proved; Ullrich aced the race against the clock, beating Cadel Evans by 23 seconds and, crucially, taking enough time out of Gil and Jaksche to end the race firmly in yellow.
Ullrich was delighted to repeat his 2004 win. "It is great, this has a huge meaning for me," he told the media in Bern's Stade de Suisse. "The Tour de Suisse is one of my preferred races. It's certainly the most difficult race after the three big ones….we did more than 22 thousand meters of climbing. I'm extremely happy to have performed well in these conditions, and it proves I am in good condition prior to the Tour de France. Furthermore, I did a very good time trial today, even despite the bad weather conditions that were there near the end. Therefore I am very happy."
Given his strong pedigree as a time trialist, Ullrich was expected to take more than the necessary 50 seconds in the final 30 kilometre time trial. However when asked if he was confident prior to the undulating race against the clock, the 32 year old said that he was taking nothing for granted.
"With cycling it's never certain. You could see from the thunderstorm today that anything can happen. It was very, very difficult to steer out there - it's very hard to handle these time trial bikes in the gusts. Today's conditions showed that nothing is certain and so I am very, very happy to take this win."
Ullrich then went on to explain his tactics during the TT. "I didn't use the biggest gear at the start…I was trying to stay as fluid as possible. The early part of the time trial was very difficult and I even changed the [inner] chainring from 46 to 42 teeth beforehand because of this, using it a lot. Later, with the strong wind, it was better to pick a bigger gear because that is more stable and helps ensure you stay on the road. I was very conscious that it was dangerous, it was not worth risking a fall to win the Tour de Suisse today."
"As regards my preparation for the Tour, this is the last little bit. It's really the last polishing…I didn't come here aiming for the general classification, at first. But I felt in very good condition [as the race went on], not tired at all, and then decided to try for the top three. As the Tour de Suisse isn't my top objective, I decided to take it day by day. But it was true that the time trial was a good test for me.
"Everybody always says that I am never at my top form in the Tour de France. But I am certainly at 90 percent of my top form now and I can work on the final ten percent before the Tour."
Ullrich will have thirteen days after the end of the Tour de Suisse before he takes to the time trial bike once more for the Tour de France prologue in Strasbourg. He told the press what he would do with that time. "First of all, I will take a couple of days rest. I will do the same thing as I did after the Giro or after I do a big block of hard training; I will rest, allow the form to build, spending two or three days very calmly with my family at home. That is also good for the head, to relax. Afterwards, I will do a week behind the motorbike to become more fluid. I don't really have much work to do in the mountains as we did 22,000 metres of climbing here, so I will just work on my suppleness.
"Wednesday week is really the start of the Tour, so I don't really have a lot of time left."
Given his rapid progression since the Tour de Romandie, Ullrich might be excused for feeling that he is on track to take a second Tour de France. He steers clear of making any rash predictions, but is clearly happy with how things have gone. "I have found myself to be in excellent form here," he stated. "I am not tired at all, so there is still every chance to improve. A bit of rest will help my body to get stronger after this race. The goal here was to get the perfect preparation for the Tour and that is why I did all the stages. This victory is very nice for me. I feel I can still improve and that the overall win in the Tour de France is possible."
Of course, Ullrich will be hoping to avoid a repeat of 2004, when he won the Tour de Suisse for the first time but then took his worst-ever finish of fourth in the Tour de France. "Hopefully there is a difference," he states. "I felt ready as well in 2004, absolutely, but I caught a flu before the start. With such a difficult race, if you are sick you are not able to get the performance that you want. As a result, I will pay a lot of attention to my health between now and the Tour. That also means I need to relax my head and stay calm.
"I'm not superstitious…I don't think I am going to only finish fourth in the Tour just because I won the Tour de Suisse again."
The obvious question was what message he felt his performance in Switzerland would send to Bjarne Riis. Did he consider it to be the perfect response to the criticisms of him as a lazy bike rider?
"That's not important," he said, opting to play things down. "My motivation doesn't come from rivals, but because I love cycling. That's what motivates me…. I don't get my motivation by putting the picture of my rival on the mirror. I get motivation from my love of cycling.
"Winning the Tour de Suisse and winning a stage of the Giro is not what counts. It is finishing the Tour de France in yellow in Paris which is the important thing. That's my big target."
If Ullrich continues to build his form as he has been doing – and remains healthy, of course – there is every chance he will hit the mountains in the Tour in peak condition. That, together with his incredible time trial ability would mean he should be very much in with a chance of taking the yellow jersey all the way to Paris. As he states, nothing is guaranteed, but Bjarne Riis may yet come to regret his words.