For the first time this year, 1997 Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich will test himself in a ProTour event, commencing this coming Monday at the Volta a Catalunya.
Once again, the 31 year-old has started off the season gradually, riding in low-key races like the Circuit de la Sarthe and Tour of Aragon in April, where he finished 10th and 8th overall respectively. However, with the Tour de France less than two months away, along with his ambitions to win the race, the German has decided to step up a gear, with the difficult, week-long stage race in Spain to be his first real test of how he's progressing.
"I am already at 60 to 70 percent of my Tour form," said Ullrich, who has been enjoying a much smoother Tour build-up when compared to last year. "I was in terrible shape then, and at the beginning of May, I had to start again from scratch."
Ullrich has spent the last four weeks on an intensive training schedule in Tuscany as well as at his home in Scherzingen, Switzerland. In Italy, together with Tobias Steinhauser and his coach Rudy Pevenage, he worked on tweaking his form, before returning to the highest level of competition next week.
"I have trained very hard in the last few days, and do not have a fear of the first big mountains," wrote Ullrich on his website, www.janullrich.de.
Added his sporting adviser, Rudy Pevenage: "Jan goes into the race with a good feeling, but he does not go into the race with the idea of winning." Commenting on the stage to Arcalis, which rises to 2,200 metres and was where Ullrich laid the foundations to win the '97 Tour, Pevenage noted he won't be aiming to keep up with the climbing specialists yet, but rather he will use to race with a view to reaching top form in July.
With 37.2 kilometres of time trials - which includes a 20.1km opening team time trial and a 17.1km mountain time trial - and a mammoth 237.7 kilometre stage finishing atop the Category 1 Coll del Pal-Arinsal on Thursday, May 19, the T-Mobile Team will certainly have their work cut out for them, whichever way they decide to ride the race. However, 'Ulle' will have solid support in the form of Spanish climbing specialists Oscar Sevilla and Paco Lara on the gruelling Pyrenean climbs.
After Catalunya, Ullrich will race back-to-back one day races at the GP Schwarzwald on June 4 in Germany and the GP Kanton Aargau/Gippengen the following day in Switzerland. The following week, he will defend his title at the Tour de Suisse, his last race before the Tour de France.
Team roster: Torsten Hiekmann, Sergey Ivanov, Paco Lara, Stephan Schreck, Oscar Sevilla, Tobias Steinhauser, Sergey Yakovlev, Jan Ullrich
Directeurs sportifs: Mario Kummer, Frans van Looy