Jan Ullrich is a riddle inside a mystery wrapped (9 months out of the year) in thick coating of Rostockian lard. The man has superhuman talent that manifested itself at a very early age. A lot of people think this has lead him into some sort of Michael Jackson /Macauley Culkin early-fame flame out thing. But that’s BS. Certainly the picture Udo Bolts paints for a young Ullrich is that of a well-adjusted, enthusiastic rider. I might let Jan play the “Behind the Music” excuse on his seriously overweight days as “El Gordo”, and possibly even on the legal problems that surrounded him in 2002.
But the guy is now 32 years old; the youthful mistakes/transition from Communism/too much pressure wah-wah train has long since left the station, and Ullrich still starts his season late (mid-April) and out of shape (though no longer shamefully so). What other cyclist’s fans would rejoice at word their hero was “only” three Kilos overweight less than a month before the Tour? At times, it seems impossible that Ullrich is anything but a man content to glide on his talent, profit from his fame, and generally disrespect the sport that provides his living.
And then he rides like he did today. Granted, the not-especially steep, steady, open and untwisting ascent of the Albulapass looked almost tailor-made for der Kaiser, but it wasn’t so much his performance that impressed me as the manner in which he carried it out. He was bent way forward, gushing sweat and practically gagging on his own tongue, mashing his huge gear, shattering the group around him and dropping all but one of the riders who dared to try and follow. It was an inspiring show; an attempt to atone for his laziness with a newly-forged determination, that paradoxically makes his prior neglect of talent all the more disgraceful.
I want to root for him. Really, I do. As strongly as I would have rooted for Raymond Poulidor or Joop Zoetemelk. But I’ve seen seen Jan work through this pattern way too many times before. In 2004, after nearly beating a sick and overworked Armstrong at the previous year’s TdF, Ullrich came into yet another season like a man determined not to win. As the months wore on, he trained himself into something resembling good condition, and after some solid results, proclaimed to the world that he was good to go. He then proceeded to get flattened by Armstrong at le Tour. One can say pretty much the same thing about any of the German’s other post-’97 Tour appearances.
It’s not like I can’t sympathize with the guy’s position. Battling to match your previous accomplishments, knowing that failure is, at some point, inevitable, can be an overwhelming thing. But after seeing him repeat the same sorry, self-defeating cycle of fatness, frenzied training, false hope and failure every year, I’ve just stopped caring. After today’s Suisse stage, Jan seems to be going good enough to have a legitimate shot at winning the Tour de France; however, if he does pull it off, it will not be because he deserved it.