By Susan Westemeyer
The absence of long-time rival Lance Armstrong will not make the Tour de France any easier for Jan Ullrich this year. "It will be just as hard as ever," Ullrich said at a press conference in Bad Saulgau, Germany yesterday. "This year it won't be Armstrong-Ullrich, but Basso-Ullrich."
Ullrich's nominal task was to present the new line of bike frames that carries his name, but of course talk was all of the recent Giro d'Italia, where he demonstrated that his time trialing is as strong as ever by winning the 50km stage 11 race against the clock, and July's Tour de France.
But first Ullrich had to actually get there. It's to be hoped we won't see the headline "Ullrich loses 20 minutes to flat tire" in the Tour, but that was the announcement the German cyclist would arrive late at his own press conference. Without his T-Mobile Team mechanics (including brother Stefan), it seems to just take a bit longer to change tires!
Ullrich's fitness and condition is the obvious issue with just five weeks to go before the Tour rolls out of Strasbourg on July 1. He admitted that he still has the back problems that forced him out of the Giro. "The back problems set me back a little," he said, but added but they are being worked on.
Nevertheless, "I'm going full into the Tour de France," he said. After some recovery time at home in Switzerland this week, Ullrich will scout the Alpine Tour stages before deciding what races to ride next -- the Vuelta Ciclista Asturias or "maybe the Tour de Suisse, maybe something else."
The final line up of T-Mobile's team for the Tour is not yet decided, but Ullrich said his good friend Andreas Klöden, "would definitely be a factor." As for the rest of the team, Ullrich said that of course the team needs not only climbing specialists but also riders capable of making tempo or riding many kilometres in the wind, in case Ullrich should claim the leader's jersey. "It's also important to have a pair of oxen on the team, you can't take just Guerinis," he said.
Looking back at the Giro, Ullrich said that he was still tired from the very hard final week. He praised winner Ivan Basso, who he said he has already personally congratulated, but noted that. "You can't compare the Tour with the Giro, it's much, much harder."
T-Mobile was arguably more successful at the Giro than anyone expected. The team entered the Italian grand tour saying it would just be a training outing for Ullrich, and then held the maglia rosa for three days; finished behind CSC in the team time trial by only one second; and won the individual time trial.
"We rode well, but had some bad luck with crashes and riders having to drop out," said Ullrich. Sergei Honchar, who took the leader jersey on stage 5, who had to drop out after hurting his back in a crash. "I saw his back, and it wasn't a pretty sight," said Ullrich.
Ullrich had no further comment on the Spanish doping scandal. "I've already said everything I'm going to on that subject," he said. "I can only say that I have nothing to do with it."
At 32, Ullrich may well be thinking about retirement, and certainly launching your own range of bike frames looks like an insurance policy for a post-racing career. But he said he couldn't answer the question of how long he planned to continue riding. "It's still fun," he said. I still have some things I want to accomplish, so we'll see."
Look out for more on Ullrich's new bikes line in a tech update later today on Cyclingnews.