By Hedwig Kröner
Five months after being suspended by his team because of alleged ties with doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, under investigation in Spain's Operación Puerto, 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich appears to still have hope that he will race again next year. The former T-Mobile rider, still without a team or a license, is training every day around his home on the shores of Lake Constance in Switzerland to get back into shape.
"Since the Tour, I didn't really feel I was rider anymore," Ullrich told L'Equipe's Philippe Le Gars. "I didn't see myself on a bike anymore. But one month ago, I got my head back up. I told myself that I couldn't just leave it like that, that I had to stand up and fight."
The 32 year-old German is reported to be ready for a new season, even if he has to race on a Pro Continental team. "It's clear to me that there won't be a slot for me in a ProTour team anymore," he continued. "But I still want to race at least another season. I had imagined winning the Tour de France this year and then announcing my retirement in the evening of the finish in Paris. But the [Puerto] events annihilated my plans. So I want to get another chance, even within a Pro Continental squad, which could allow me to race a Grand Tour, like the Giro for example. I'm not angry, but I want to show some people that they were wrong about me."
Nevertheless, Ullrich did express some bitterness about the current attitude of the ProTour teams who, with the exception of Discovery Channel, have decided not to allow riders implicated in the Puerto affair a return at the highest level. "Nobody wants to take the risk of making us race again," he added. "As if pulling out two or three pawns would allow everybody to wash their hands clean!"
Ullrich is now confident that he will get a racing license soon: "It's not a problem," he said. "Several federations have made me offers already. Everything will be fine."
The German also described his feelings during the last months. "I was really down," he said. "That period of time was a terrible humiliation to me, but fortunately Sara and I had to prepare our wedding in September, so I could think about other things than what was written in the press on my behalf. Sometimes, I even felt I was in the centre of a huge conspiracy in Germany.
"All of this time, I was boiling inside. I wanted to cry out loud that everything that was said about me was pure lies. The German press was relentless, inventing unbelievable stories about me. While Lance [Armstrong] is considered a hero in his country, I was treated like a criminal."
Recently, the organisers of the Tour of Germany also turned their backs on Ullrich, saying that he they would not allow him to participate. "That's a strange attitude," commented the rider. "Without me, the Tour of Germany wouldn't exist; it's because of my victory in the Tour in 1997 that the German races were created. Today, some of them have a short memory. And how long could they do without riders like Basso, Ullrich and Vinokourov, as happened this year at the Tour?"
His wife Sara also let her feelings show when asked about Ullrich's former team, T-Mobile. "Jan didn't get any support," she said. "Nobody at T-Mobile ever tried to understand what happened, nobody helped him. Yet it was Jan who allowed this team to exist."