Tales from the peloton, December 6, 2006.
Jörg Ludewig is happy to be "off of the powderkeg" and back on the bike. After a turbulent season which saw him ride the Giro d'Italia - and not much else - for T-Mobile Team and in which his career was nearly destroyed by an eight-year-old letter, he is now looking forward to starting over again in 2007 with Team Wiesenhof-Felt. Cyclingnews' Susan Westemeyer caught up with him after his new team's first meeting in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Ludewig was a highly-regarded German rider who spent most of his career with Italian teams, where he developed the reputation of being an outstanding domestique and helper. But all of that was nearly wiped out this summer with the publication of a letter he wrote as a 22-year-old amateur riding for Team EC Bayer Worringen. In the letter he was seeking information about doping products and indicating a willingness to use them. That was as far as his interest in the products went, he claimed, and he went on to a successful professional career.
Unfortunately for him, this letter turned up again shortly after the beginning of the Tour de France, when not only T-Mobile and the German media but all of cycling were hypersensitive to any kind of charges related to doping. The team announced that Ludewig would not race for them again and that his contract would not be renewed.
"The team gave in to public pressure, probably it had to give in," he said. "But it handled me fairly. I was neither fired nor suspended and continued to receive my full salary. In the situation during the Tour, probably every management would have acted the same way."
He doesn't see himself as a "sacrificial lamb" in the matter, nor does he try to push the blame off on others. ""To put it bluntly: I screwed up when I was young and still wet behind the ears, when I wrote that note, and now I have to face the music."
However, Ludewig said that he could only wonder at the manner and timing of the letter's publication. "It's too bad that parts of the self-described 'premium press', instead of relying on serious and sound reporting, have to use sarcasm and cynicism to make the articles appeal to the readers."
As to Operation Puerto, he can only shake his head. "Yes, no, certified documents, faked documents, injunctions...No idea what is happening there. The fact is, that I know neither Dr. Fuentes nor the practices he is accused of. Funnily enough, although I have worked as a helper on the highest levels for many years and shared rooms with many 'stars', I have never heard of any of it."
When he got word from T-Mobile that his career with them was ended: "my world fell apart, naturally. I didn't want to look at my bike - and didn't. But when the scales showed that I had broken through the 80 kilogram barrier, I saw rather quickly that I needed to start doing something again. Then I quickly found out that the passion and love were still there, that I still liked riding my bike. But it was rather interesting trying to find an adequate offer to ride again!"
T-Mobile's new management let him know that he had no chance with them. "Especially Rolf Aldag and Christian Frommert [they] listened to me quietly and with understanding, but because of the team's absolute 'no tolerance' policy, they couldn't give me any hope of being on the '07 roster."
However, thanks to friend and former teammate Ole Ternes, he found his way to the second-division Team Wiesenhof - where he joins three T-Mobile teammates from 2006. "The Wiesenhof management trust me and my abilities and is counting on my 'undoubted riding ability, team spirit and experience', to quote [team manager Jens] Heppner. They looked into the matter thoroughly and hired me."
Ludewig said he has never had problems with doping tests, and doesn't expect to in the future. " All of the approximately 70 doping controls in my career have been low-key, negative and not a problem, and it will stay that way. I will also be glad to give a DNA sample, if that will somehow serve to improve cycling's credibility."
He is also looking forward to a new role at Wiesenhof and the chance to be more than helper. "I'll go from being the 16th indian to being a substitute chief," he noted happily. "I want to win and show that you shouldn't write Jörg Ludewig off. But I have learned in the last few months that you can't take yourself too seriously. It wouldn't be a problem for me to ride for a neo-pro on the team. The motto for '07 is: The main thing is for green to win, it doesn't matter who!"
Looking at his racing calendar for the coming year, Ludewig said he would start off differently from this season. "This year in January I was fit enough to bring a top performance. In March the oven was out. I was over motivated." His new plans mean a lot of world travel: "I plan to use Malaysia and South Africa to get fit for the Spring Classics. Rund um Köln, Henninger Turm, the Niedersachsen and Deutschland Tours, as well as the German nationals, are all on my wish list." And his goal for 2007? "There must definitely be a win in the new year!"
He also expected the team to be invited to ProTour races. "We have a team that is mature both in character and in athletic ability, which falls short of the ProTour only financially and quantitatively. 'One for all and all for one.' If we live by this principle, then some of the ProTour teams will have to watch out!"
Ludewig continued optimistically: "A few early victories will ensure that we will be allowed to start in the highest international level - except at the Tour. The ProTour race organisers will lick their fingers to have a aggressive Wiesenhof-Felt team and won't automatically instead take a ProTour team which only sends its C squad. Sometime less really is more."
An experienced pro, Ludewig denied that there would be any special satisfaction in beating his former team. "If someone else is stronger, he will win. When not, then I will win. It doesn't matter who your rival is. A lot of my magenta teammates supported me when I had my low point this summer." He concedes, though: "OK, I probably would have a little more pleasure in winning against another German team."
And what does he want to say to those critics who claim that cycling is infested by doping? "Some of those self-pronounced specialists ought to take two years vacation and outfit an 8,000 Euro bike with an SRM system. Then they only need to add 35,000 kilometres a year, hand-fitted cycling shoes, 4 times a year altitude training and daily massage. And if you have a good therapist on your team and are watched after by the Freiburg Clinic and have nothing to do except to ride that bike, then you can judge what performance the human body is capable of over a short time period."
"That's better than bringing thousands of athletes into miscredit because you don't know what you're talking about. It is clear and undisputed that cycling has a doping problem. But let's be clear about what it is."