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East German icon Ludwig recalls fall of Berlin Wall

Olaf Ludwig Photo: © KlaDi

Olaf Ludwig Photo: © KlaDi

It is 20 years to the day since border points between East and West Berlin were opened, an event that set Germany on the road towards reunification. Among those East Germans stunned by the speed of events that led to the opening of the countries borders was Olaf Ludwig, one of the country's sporting icons having taken the Olympic road title in Seoul in 1988 and won no fewer than 36 stages in the Peace Race.

Interviewed in this morning's edition of L'Equipe, Ludwig recalls events from two decades ago that led to him going from star status in East Germany to a Tour de France debut and the points title just months later. In the interview Ludwig reveals that he had spoken about turning professional following his Olympic success, but had been persuaded to continue in the amateur ranks for another two seasons by high-ranking members of the East German government.

Having missed out on the 1989 Worlds due to injury, Ludwig's season ended in Australia. Back home, meanwhile, protests against the East German regime were building. "We saw pictures of demonstrations in Leipzig on Australian TV, but we didn't understand what was going on," Ludwig recalls. "Some Polish riders translated it all for us."

On his return to East Germany in late October 1989, Ludwig and several other leading riders tried to persuade authorities to let them turn pro. Their request was denied.

Back home in Gera, Ludwig and his wife went out to a birthday party on November 9. "It was late. We'd drunk quite a bit and when we were walking in front of the town hall, a guy ran by shouting" 'The Wall has come down!' Obviously, we didn't believe him, but little by little everyone came out into the streets."

As East Germany started to disintegrate, pro team managers and agents attempted to sign up the many talents that had been brought through the country's sporting system. Ludwig was initially linked to the Stuttgart team that was the forerunner to Team Telekom. However, poor communication links meant the deal was never finalised and a representative from Peter Post's Panasonic team managed to fax a contract to Ludwig.

"Post was on holiday and they asked me to sign a contract that he was sending by fax. I was astounded, I had no idea what a fax was," Ludwig said.

In January 1990, Ludwig put his bike in the back of his Lada and drove to Holland to meet up with his new teammates. Within a few days he was making his pro debut at the Ruta del Sol. Led out by the powerhouse Panasonic team, Ludwig was a first-day winner and quickly racked up the victories.

Five months later, Post was rewarded for his canny move for Ludwig when the big East German wore the Tour's green jersey into Paris, just two months before East and West Germany were reunified.

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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).