While he won the 1997 Tour de France and the 2000 Olympic Road Race, Jan Ullrich is probably best remembered as Lance Armstrong's chief rival at the Tour de France. Ullrich was never able to beat the Texan, finishing on the podium with Armstrong on four occasions. After Armstrong's first retirement, Ullrich was the heavy favorite to win the 2006 Tour, but was implicated in the Spanish Operacion Puerto investigation into blood doping and was not allowed to start the race.
The fallout from Ullrich's alleged involvement in Operacion Puerto caused his retirement from the sport in 2006. He is awaiting the results of a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hearing to find out if there are to be any sanctions from the Operacion Puerto affair.
Recently, Ullrich, now married and the father of two young sons, was hired by Monaco-based Star Events to be an ambassador for their Gran Fondo Colnago series, four to six public cycling events held in the United States each year. Cyclingnews caught up with him and his manager, Falk Nier, at the recent Gran Fondo Colnago Miami.
"After my career I took a few years off and spent time with my family and friends in order to gain some distance from things and to transition into my new life. About a year ago I started riding my bike a little again and want to be active in the field again," replied Ullrich when asked to describe the last five years after having retired from the sport .
"I wanted to do some sport [cycling] again, that is my life. I enjoy riding and wanted to combine it with sharing my experience. I enjoy getting other people interested in it and sharing the joys and health and mental benefits of cycling with other people," he added.
When he looks back on his career, it is his Tour de France victory and not his Olympic gold medal that he cherishes most. "That [the Tour] is the biggest thing overall. To put up with the pressure for three weeks and then riding on to the Champs Elysees in the yellow jersey. Only when that happened did I believe I had won the Tour de France," said Ullrich.
Does he have any regrets about his career? "Surely my year of injuries in 2002 where I didn't ride at all and also the problems that followed. We learn from our mistakes and looking back you always regret your mistakes, and now I have a bit of distance to them," said Ullrich.
It also became clear that he laments the lost opportunity to win the 2006 Tour. He had won a time trial stage at the Giro d'Italia and then the overall classification at the Tour de Suisse. "What I regret, or what I find too bad, is that in 2006 I could not start the Tour de France as I had an outstanding form. And when my career ended, the way it happened. I would have wished it to end in a different way," said Ullrich.
Other high-profile riders such as Ivan Basso served a suspension and have been welcomed back into the pro peloton. Did Ullrich think he was treated fairly? "When it happened there were several nations involved. The Spaniards dealt with it more relaxed than in Germany. I was put on the chopping block and suffered a lot," said Ullrich.
"I was upset because I was going to end my career anyway. I wanted to stop that year and Basso isn't much younger than me and after his suspension he could ride again but for me it was not something I was considering," he added.
"It was a different situation in Germany than in Spain. In Germany it was the biggest case ever in sports history and on the other side after five years there is still no decision. You want to have a final decision and it looks like we will finally have it in the next two or three weeks. It is frustrating now to wait," said Falk Nier, Ullrich's personal manager.
"This is a typical German problem. It is not a European problem, it is a German problem. In France, Italy, Spain they don't have problems like that but it is the mentality of the Germans. They are pushing the stars up to the top and then they put them down. That's Germany, you know? It's a typical German problem. No other nation ... I don't know what will happen in the US with Lance," Nier added.
In 2010 Ullrich announced that he was suffering from burn out syndrome and withdrawing from public life. He has since recovered, but explained what happened. "Looking back it is quite simple. It was tough mentally. I had a lot of problems. I telephoned a lot with lawyers. There were difficult things to get through, and I simply didn't get any exercise. The balance between head and body wasn't there," said Ullrich.
He acknowledged that his family has been critical in getting him through these difficult times. "The family stands behind you no matter what. They are always there. They know the right words to say. Naturally the family is the most valuable thing you can have and they stand behind you no matter what happens," said Ullrich.
The German still watches the Tour de France with Alberto Contador as his favourite rider. Have things changed much since his days at Tour? "Not much has changed in the five years I have been out. You can count on one hand the number of riders who can win the Tour, like Contador and the Schleck brothers," said Ullrich.
"Cycling is as exciting as ever and I follow it as a fan on television. It is a grandiose sport and there will always be great riders. It is a great sport with many aspects and many different races, one day races and stage races, and it is always exciting," added Ullrich.
As for what it will it take for the Schleck brothers to win the Tour, he commented, "They have so much potential. I think now with Bruyneel on a team which has been strengthened they will have good chances to win. But they are always exciting and always have good chances," said Ullrich.
Additional reporting by Susan Westemeyer.