Life during wartime

Book review: Quäl Dich, Du Sau! by Udo Bölts with Klaus Dieter Kullmann, May 24, 2006

German former pro Udo Bölts is a veteran of the Telekom team's long battle to win the Tour de France and then to repeat that victory during the Armstrong era. In his auto biography, Quäl Dich, Du Sau! he looks back on his days with Jan Ullrich. Susan Westemeyer has a précis for those of us that don't speak fluent German.

"Qual dich, du sau," is not only the title of Udo Bölts autobiography but also the saying that made him famous. It's what he shouted to Jan Ullrich when he weakened near the end of the 1997 Tour de France. Literally translated, it makes no sense at all, but it means something along the lines of, "Goddamnit, move your arse, you son of a bitch!" Stronger language than the mild Bölts usually uses, but it was "a simple attempt to dig the very last bit" out of his captain that day. Ullrich claims not to have heard it, by the way, but he did, of course, go on to the win that Tour.

Bölts was a chubby 12-year-old with allergies and asthma, and a five-year-older brother who was actively involved in cycling. This combination of circumstances invariably led to his own involevement in cycling. His career did not get off to a promising start. In 1979 he rode the race Rund um Frankfurt as a 13-year-old. "Afterwards, two of my competitors were talking in the shower. 'Did you see number 111, that fat pig, and what a big arse he had?', said one of them loudly and clearly. I soaped up, showered, and dried myself off. Back in the locker room I dug my number out of my bag. Indeed, I was 111."

He overcame this and other demoralizing situations. And there was one moment which not only motivated him to continue, but also had a foreboding of his professional future. It was the 1980 Tour de France. "Then came this day, which fascinated me, electrified me and made me wild to be a pro cyclist and ride the Tour. The peloton rolled from Frankfurt to Metz, where a certain Rudy Pevenage won the sprint of the 276 km stage. Of course it never entered my mind at the time that Rudy would ever play a role in my life. Why should it? He was a pro rider, who was wearing the green jersey of the Tour's best sprinter, and far from his future as a trainer and advisor. And I was just an almost-14-year-old greenhorn, far from being a pro."

Bölts finally made it up to the pro ranks and in January 1992, his Team Stuttgart turned into Team Telekom, under the direction of Walter Godefroot. That spring Bölts brought home the new team's very first win ever, beating Pedro Delgado in a a mountain stage in the Vuelta a Pais Vasco.

In his many years at Telekom, Bölts rode for three captains: Bjarne Riis, Erik Zabel and Jan Ullrich. From the beginning, he was astounded by Riis' "unusual self-confidence" and his announcement that he intended to win the Tour de France in 1996. Riis did win the Tour that year, but only just, and the runner-up was a name for the future -- and a rival of the first order out of his own ranks. Riis was visibly nervous going in to the final time trial. "The team watched the time trial on television. Bjarne didn't look bad. But in the last 1.5 km, on a wide street with a strong headwind, he started to have problems. Maybe he had not eaten or drunk enough, I don't know. But he fought and managed to make it. If the time trial had been a few kilometers longer, he would have lost the Tour -- and to his own teammate, Jan Ullrich."

In 1993 a young sprinter joined the team -- Erik Zabel, who quickly turned the Tour's green sprinter's trikot into his own. "He was motivated to win this highly-desirable jersey over and over, and he had the satisfaction of achieving that. But it also had to do with the omnipresent Jan Ullrich, who was always favored by the media, whether he won or lost. Possibly Erik was driven by Jan's popularity. He didn't want to, and couldn't, simply put it aside." Bölts and Zabel never became close personal friends, but there is much about Zabel that he admires. "I admire his diligent training," he notes, and adds, "By the way, I never saw a bad Erik Zabel."

And in January 1995, a young red-headed, freckle-faced German joined the team. "I saw at the first glance that this man and his racing bike belonged together. This seat! This pedaling! This enthusiasm and the joy to be cycling!" It was clear from the first what Ullrich's potential was, but he was happy to help along the way. In 1996, "he came to France in order to learn and to sacrifice himself with unqualified support for Bjarne Riis and the team. Jan said over and over, that he was satisfied with the helper's role, and he meant it, too."

Things were more complicated in July, 1997. "We helpers were in a difficult position, in which none of us felt comfortable. An official captain, an unofficial captain, and a sprinter with big ambitions, how were we supposed to remain neutral? How would that work? A damned complicated job. Jan Ullrich kept trying to soften the situation. He didn't have enough experience to win, he still had plenty of time to become Number One, he said happily. That was no false modesty. Jan didn't just say it, he meant it.""

Ullrich did become the Number One that year, though, winning the Tour. But he didn't win it alone. "It took a while for me to realize what we had accomplished and that the team also got its credit. Pride, satisfaction, fulfillment were what we all felt. Never before had I felt the togetherness of the helpers so intensively," Bölts writes, in what might be the ultimate description of how helpers should be. "Rolf Aldag, Jens Heppner, Christian Henn, Georg Totschnig, Giovanni Lombardi and me. We six were a close-knit group, in which any one of us would do anything for the others. This came from each of us from the heart. It was 100 percent enthusiasm and not 90 percent calculated performance, with something held back. We were winners, too!"

Bölts was willing to do all he could to help Ullrich. "I was willing to ride myself to death for him in every stage, at the risk of not being able to ride the next day, rather than have to say to myself, that I hadn't done enough. He was worth it to me." But slowly he began to have doubts. "I had gotten to know Jan better and believed that he had lost the obsession that an Erik Zabel had and which I thought I had spotted in him, too. Or had he never had it? He didn't have the decisiveness, the overriding ambition, the unlimited will and finally the ability to work hard, steadily and consequently for his success. 'Yes, I want to win the Tour again.' We heard and read this sentence time and again. But did he really follow this ambitious goal with everything he had? Sometimes I doubted that -- I believe, that last little bit was missing from him."

He specifically criticizes Ullrich for a situation in the 1997 Tour, which he manages to explain in not-too-explicit detail. Ullrich had to go to the bathroom, the kind of stop for which a rider usually jumps off his bike and squats behind a bush. But only 20 km before the climb up Alpe d'Huez, that wasn't a possibility. Jens Heppner came up with the solution and picked up several baseball caps from the team auto. Riis and Brian Holm controlled the field from the front, and the rest of the magenta-clad riders surrounded their captain, one of them holding the cap into which he did his business. And the criticism? "A pro cyclist must normally not even think about such a thing, because the morning visit to the toilet is part of the normal routine. It is something which demands regular attention. If you want to get an unusual performance from your body, you have to eat and drink properly and go the toilet regularly."

"Sometimes naive, always natural -- that is the Jan Ullrich that I got to know and appreciate. A rider and a colleague with highs and lows, who at the age of barely 20 became a superstar in German sports, a role which he never really wanted to play. He is not the kind of person who behaves as others want him to. He is a genius on the bike, with a certain carelessness which he could never get rid of. But when it came down to it, he didn't always takes thing seriously. He has never had a problem to own up to his weaknesses and mistakes. That is part of what makes him so sympathetic to his fans."

In 2002, when Bölts was 36, he had a verbal agreement with Godefroot to prolong his contract for another year. But then Ullrich had his problems with knee, drunk driving and ultimately the positive doping test. "It never became public, how and what the management really discussed. At any rate it went over and under, someone came up with the idea that it was time to make a big break. The circle around Ullrich was going to be dismissed." Although Bölts did not belong to Ullrich's inner circle, the axe fell on him. Fortunately, his good friend and former teammate Christian Henn was now working for Team Gerolsteiner, and it didn't take long for a job offer to appear. He rode the 2003 season for them, including a disastrous team debut at the Tour de France, with only three riders surviving to the final stage.

He then was faced with a difficult decision: to continue riding to not? He didn't see it as quitting as so much starting with something new. And there was a compelling reason, or rather two: "The almost six-year-old Helena and the three-year-old Jan asked about me all the time, I know how much my family was waiting for me."

But he did not leave cycling. He merely, as he says, "changed sides" and went from the bike to the team car, becoming a Directeur Sportif for Team Gerolsteiner, a position he still holds.

Quäl Dich, Du Sau, by Udo Bölts with Klaus D. Kullman is available from Covadonga Verlag, Bielefeld, Germany, ISBN-10: 3-936973-20-2

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See also: Udo Bölts interview

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