Opinion: Richard Moore on the career of Jan Ullrich

Everyone has a favourite Jan Ullrich story. Mine comes from the 2005 Tour de France, which represented Ullrich’s last chance to beat his nemesis, Lance Armstrong.

On the day before the Tour started Armstrong appeared for his press conference. He arrived like a film star or world leader, in a cocoon of men who might have been bodyguards and who anxiously scanned the room. It was pure theatre, with a hint of menace. And it all reinforced the Armstrong aura.

When Ullrich arrived for his press conference he shuffled in wearing a track suit, looking a little dishevelled. And he was sporting a black eye. Earlier that day he had been out training, riding behind one of the T-Mobile team cars, when it suddenly braked, and Ullrich slammed into the rear window.

What happened the next day was, in hindsight, inevitable. Armstrong started behind Ullrich in the opening time trial and humiliated him by catching him. The Tour was effectively over for Ullrich when it had barely started.

And that was his last shot. The following year, with Armstrong gone and the race wide open, he appeared in Strasbourg as the favourite, but never made it to the start line, having been bundled out of the city when his name was linked to Operacion Puerto, the blood doping investigation that centred on a Madrid clinic run by Dr Eufemiano Fuentes.

Last week, almost six years later, that episode finally came to a conclusion, with Ullrich, who retired five years ago, stripped of his results from 2005/06 and handed a meaningless two-year ban by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Ullrich accepted the sanction and admitted he’d had contact with Fuentes. “I know that this was a big mistake, which I regret very much,” said Ullrich after the ruling.

Athletes often refer to their doping as a “mistake”, though you suspect they mean that their mistake was to be caught. It’s a bit of a stretch to describe making numerous trips to Madrid to meet Dr Fuentes, leaving blood stored in nine bags, and transferring €80,000 into the doctor’s bank account, as a ‘mistake.’

But Ullrich did something quite unusual: he apologised. “I would like to sincerely apologise for this behaviour - I’m very sorry.” He added: “In retrospect I would act differently in some situations during my career.”

Despite the conclusive proof that Ullrich doped, condemnation of him has been muted. Many cycling fans are ambivalent, and some appear sympathetic. It is a response that stands in stark contrast to the feelings stirred up by the more divisive Armstrong. That might be partly because Ullrich was regularly beaten by Armstrong: he was more fragile, more vulnerable (he rode into the back of team cars the day before the Tour); more human.

But it might also owe to a deeper understanding of his circumstances and the context in which he found himself. And, more superficially, to an appreciation of his talent, even the simple aesthetic pleasure of watching Ullrich ride a bike. At his peak, he represented the perfect marriage of grace and power: he had the style of Contador, the strength of Cancellara, and the musculature of the Incredible Hulk.

Ullrich grew up in East Germany and, from the moment he won the 1993 world amateur road race title at the age of 19, it was clear that he was a phenomenon. He seemed to confirm that in 1996 when, in his first Tour, he finished second. The following year he won and most predicted he would go on to dominate for the next decade.

Then along came Armstrong.

Ullrich became a ‘victim’ of the Armstrong era. But he might also be considered a victim of the EPO era. Most agree that this drug dominated and distorted the sport during the decade that Ullrich was at or near the top. It makes any fair assessment of his career impossible. Was he a product of the era, or a victim of it? Or both?

Whatever: it seems a bit rich of the UCI, cycling’s governing body, to have pursued Ullrich with such vengeance when they presided over -- and, through their initial inaction, must take some responsibility for -- an era so blighted by EPO. Why go after Ullrich and ignore others?

It is a farce that is confirmed by a study of the updated results of the 2005 Tour. With Ullrich’s third-place finish now airbrushed from history, Francisco Mancebo steps up to the podium. That’s the same Mancebo who, like Ullrich, was forced out of the 2006 Tour when his name was linked to Operacion Puerto. In fact, of the revised top ten, eight riders have either tested positive, served a ban or been under investigation for doping.

This leads to one conclusion. The problem was not Jan Ullrich.

Perhaps that is why the judgement of Ullrich has not been accompanied by moral outrage. In fact, there has been precious little judgement of this confessed cheat.

On Twitter, Jonathan Vaughters, who raced during the same era, spoke for many when he applauded Ullrich for accepting the CAS ruling: “Hats off to Ullrich for taking a pragmatic stance. He was a huge talent caught in an era with an unbeatable drug. Not more, not less.”

Within the space constraints of a tweet, Vaughters seemed to acknowledge the talent that made Ullrich such a thrilling rider to watch, as well as the possibility that his talent was, in the end, not made but destroyed by the drugs that disfigured that toxic era.

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Richard Moore is a freelance journalist and author. His first book, In Search of Robert Millar (HarperSport), won Best Biography at the 2008 British Sports Book Awards. His second book, Heroes, Villains & Velodromes (HarperSport), was long-listed for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

He writes on sport, specialising in cycling, and is a regular contributor to Cyclingnews, the Guardian, skyports.com, the Scotsman and Procycling magazine.

He is also a former racing cyclist who represented Scotland at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and Great Britain at the 1998 Tour de Langkawi

His next book, Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Ever Tour de France, will be published by Yellow Jersey in May 2011.

Another book, Sky’s the Limit: British Cycling’s Quest to Conquer the Tour de France, will also be published by HarperSport in June 2011.