Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was

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Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was

Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was

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I won’t further comment on “The contrast in attitudes towards DDR doping days and pro cycling’s leaden years is striking” because I went some length on it below.

And yet, he was never again to regain those heights. Though perfectly respectable, his career was already in decline as he stood on the winner's podium. When he retired amid allegations of doping, his reputation lay in tatters. Given this period of cycling history it naturally plays out against Ullrich’s complete and utter denial of having anything whatsoever to do with doping, nor did his Team Telekom, later T-Mobile, other than giving that sense the only crime in doping was getting caught. as in: “There’s exploration on when Ullrich might have started using EPO and whether he was a victim of the East German state doping program”). Perhaps Friebe’s greatest achievement is capturing the elusive cyclist, and explaining his mystery, without breaking it. Even though he discusses the less attractive details of Ullrich, you never lose a sense of connectedness with ‘Der Jan’. And perhaps that’s the core of this book. It is both a fine work of journalism, but also respectful.An engaging and gripping read. Sport is about the celebration of victory but the losers can supply more compelling stories. The rise and demise of Armstrong has been told many times over, Jan Ullrich’s story less so, particularly in English and the author with his language skills and Berlin residency is the perfect writer. This book tells a story of Ullrich with themed chapters that are well-researched and written with polish as they blend the micro with the macro, from details on winter weight gain, to new light about blood doping practices all the way to to placing Ullrich’s life with the social context of German reunification and this breadth makes it one of the best cycling biographies of recent years. Never the less the book does have interest, life in the DDR and the reunification are aspects which are little known. Ironically the book springs to like whenever Armstrong appears, his drive and the power of his personality, both positive and negative are far more engaging and to give him his due he appears to genuinely like Ulrich and has stood by him, literally in some cases. A fortnight out from the start of the 2022 Tour de France in Copenhagen, Friebe’s substantial-sized work is neatly timed — also coming as it does now 25 years after Ullrich became the first and last German to win the Tour, his victory margin in 1997 of nine minutes and nine seconds not surpassed since. Nor indeed was Ullrich’s own career high.

The contrast in attitudes towards DDR doping days and pro cycling’s leaden years is striking. The book mentions how many doped ex-athletes from the DDR get moral and financial support today. Pro cycling also had endemic doping but once entangled by Operation Puerto – the final verdict would take years – Ullrich never raced again and became a pariah.” Of course, only Fuentes has been *proven*, but just as Friebe “explores” the DDR leit motiv, why don’t explore this also rather promising subject, given that Ullrich had quite much a stronger relation with the Telekom team than with the DDR, be it only due to mere chronology? Well, not especially – it tends to be interesting as it’s a classic in ideologically skewed representations and comes up relatively often. Plus, I’m a long-time Ullrich fan, so I’ve followed him as an athlete for well, decades now. Coincidentally I happened to see this post on the same day I noticed that generations times up many of the most famous climbs – Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez – still stand, I was genuinely suprised that Froome’s 2013 Ventoux as well as Vingegaard and Pogacar in 2021 was so far down this list. Obviously heat, wind and competition mean you can’t compare like for like but still fascinating how the EPO/Blood doping generation cast such a long shadow across cycling in so many ways.Lance, though, feels something really big for Jan too. Talking to Friebe, he recounts how Ullrich came to the Team Discovery victory party in Paris at the end of the 2005 Tour, an unheard-of way for the vanquished to behold the victor. As he’s saying this, Armstrong breaks down and cries, sobbing, apparently, going deep into his own connectedness to his rival, an incomprehensible break from his alpha character. Friebe is there for this raw moment about the link between two people, both elite cycling champions, both deeply wounded in some way — by fame? by shame? by absent, unloving fathers? — and yeah, the resulting on-bike psychology could not be more different. Lance channeled his pain into becoming an unstoppable force, while Jan’s pain turned him into a jumble of contradictions and self-sabotaging behavior. But in the aftermath they discover how alike they are after all. If they end up later in life sharing an apartment together in Paris, overlooking the Champs-Élysées and just going through their daily routines, knowing that they share a bond nobody else can understand... I’m not sure that’s off the table. It was an impulse that had its roots in Armstrong’s childhood, though where exactly, Armstrong tells me he doesn’t understand. He has also never really dwelled on why, given that they were both the sons of abusive or absent fathers, raised by devoted single mothers, Jan Ullrich turned out so different. Now, Daniel Friebe - who has covered twenty-one editions of the Tour de France - has gone in search of the man who was said in 1997 would go on to dominate his sport for a generation, but never quite managed it. For its final day in the Pyrenees – the last mountain stage in what some pundits were calling the most thrilling edition in memory – the Tour would be blessed with a grandiose setting on its journey from Bagnères-de-Bigorre to Luz-Ardiden. I guess I’d need to read it but frankly from what inrng reports the focus on DDR doping and so on looks laughable at best, especially when speaking of a prominent Telekom athlete.

Instead of rattling off a string of Tour victories, Ullrich was derailed by a long list of personal demons and ran straight into Lance Armstrong. This is a gripping account of how unbearable expectation, mental and physical fragility, the effects of a complicated childhood, a morally corrupt sport and one individual – Lance Armstrong – can conspire to reroute destiny. Daniel Friebe takes us from the legacy of East Germany’s drugs programme to the pinnacle of pro cycling and asks: what price can you give sporting immortality? To be published on the tenth anniversary of his retirement, Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was is an exploration of what went wrong. It is not a sporting disaster story, for Ullrich was one of the pre-eminent riders of his epoch and a German national treasure for almost a decade. Rather, it will provide a textured account of how unbearable expectation, mental and physical fragility, the legacies of a troubled childhood, a morally gangrened sport and one individual - Lance Armstrong - conspired to reroute his destiny as well as that of cycling. Never again after 1997 would cycling fans react to that level of performance with untainted awe. Now, Daniel Friebe–who has covered twenty-one editions of the Tour de France–has gone in search of the man who was said in 1997 would go on to dominate his sport for a generation, but never quite managed it. One touching aspect of the book is how Friebe ultimately ends up on a quest — which he describes in greater detail on The Cycling Podcast’s June 5, 2022 edition. His quest starts to mirror the subject he is covering, as Friebe talks about struggling with anxiety over the book and its ultrasensitive subject. But there is another interesting, endearing element I don’t believe he has mentioned: how this book and its creation resembles Richard Moore’s In Search of Robert Millar, the breakthrough book that put Friebe’s dear friend and eventual podcast partner into the mainstream of cycling media.Of course all of this was played out in the midst of some of the biggest drug infringements in the Tour’s history, to the point that the Tour was no longer functioning as a sporting event. No one who rode in this period escaped suspicion and/or prosecution and history has revealed both Ullrich and Armstrong as drug cheats. But realistically neither Ullrich or Pantani ( another rider who followed a similar fall from grace as Ullrich, ending in graver circumstances) could compete with the Armstrong phenomena whom, either on the bike or off of it, was always going to be the preferred cash cow of the TDF. Who could blame the organisers with the financial clout and resources of the USA and his celebrity status after surviving cancer. The long awaited biography of Jan Ullrich by the eloquent and knowledgeable Daniel Friebe does not disappoint. Friebe is one the presenters of the Cycling Podcast and has been working as a journalist in cycling for two decades. As a veteran reporter on the Tour caravan, a polyglot, and an avid speed golf player he turned out to be the best biographer we could have wished for. He moved to Germany, and properly learned German to write this book. This part is almost comical in a sense — that Jan would eat huge amounts of food and gain tons of weight each winter, anathema to a cyclist. Friebe hears one anecdote after another about what people saw him eat (“two pints of ice cream in an hour!”). He collects numerous stories of immensely frustrated team staff urging Ullrich to curb his bad habits, only to provoke angry reactions. It can sound funny at times, but it almost certainly wasn’t.

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