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The reunification of German cycling

Germany's Jan Ullrich in 2006

Germany's Jan Ullrich in 2006 (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Twenty years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall opened, and for the first time in decades, citizens of East Germany were able to enter West Berlin legally and easily. Cycling was not unaffected by political matters, with East Germans Jan Ullrich and Erik Zabel among those making the move to the west and going on to stardom.

Jan Ullrich, future Tour de France winner and a native of Rostock, (East) Germany, was a 15-year-old student at the Kinder und Jugendsportschule in East Berlin. Looking back, he says he is amazed how little he understood of what was happening. In his book, Ganz oder Gar Nicht, published in 2004, he described his first visit over the border – getting 'guest' money from a West German bank and heading to the nearest sports shoe store. He was astounded at the selection of shoes, and spent virtually all of his Western Deutschmarks on a pair of Adidas shoes.

Ullrich continued on at the school until January 1992, when he moved to Hamburg.

Zabel is a native (East) Berliner, and was older than Ullrich when the Wall fell. At 19, he was already a member of the national team. He wasn't even aware of the events in his hometown as they happened. The sprinter was in Tunisia for a national team training camp, and only heard the news the next day. He stayed in Berlin to finish his schooling before moving to the Dortmund, Germany, area, where he still lives.

Jens Voigt also attended the Sports School in Berlin, where he met and became friends with Zabel. He was still at the school in November 1989,  and 'crossed over' on the night of November 9. Voigt admitted to being stunned by the availability of consumer goods. Voigt stayed in Berlin, and lives there to this day.

There are a number of younger riders in the peloton, who had the advantage of being able to stay home and not having to move to West Germany. Marcus Burghardt, for example, was only six years old when the Wall fell, and didn't join his first cycling club until 1993, when he was 10.

The most interesting case, though, may be Tony Martin. He was born in Cottbus, East Germany, but came to the West at the tender age of four. His parents and he were among those who were able to slip across the border from Hungary to Austria, and then to West Germany, in the summer of 1989.

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