jan ullrich - the best there never was. daniel friebe. macmillan publishing hardback. 448pp illus. £25

jan ullrich - daniel freibe

we are all, to a greater or lesser degree at the mercy of our fortune, whether it be good or bad, but also at the mercy of decisions made early in life that push us in certain directions. were those decisions solely ours to make, acceptance of the outcomes may be easier to endure, but there's little doubt that education, recognition of any inherent abilities and those with whom we associate, either directly or indirectly, can play a major part in how we eventually turn out. and all the above can be further influenced by our country of birth.

for example, i have been involved in the peripheries of music education and practice for long enough to have frequently found dismay at the career choices made by youngsters with talents that would be the envy of many. despite having access to the best of musical education and the ability to fulfil what those many hours of practice have provided, on reaching their senior years of education, they frequently opt to follow a path that, in effect, discards all in favour of commerce or a more financially stable future. granted, it's rarely a straightforward matter of choosing between becoming a feted concert pianist or an accountant, but only one of those choices tends to depend on an innate talent, and accountancy probably isn't it. and who can blame them for following the money?

but if we re-introduce the previously mentioned 'country of birth', the balance of those choices may alter somewhat. such is the arena in which a young jan ullrich grew up; the deutsche democratic republic. or east germany to the rest of us. along with many others in the communist bloc the east germans placed great emphasis on the natural abilities of the younger members of its population, particularly in the sporting milieu. this, of course, was not simple altruism on behalf of east germany's leaders, but the result of a system that equated the pinnacle of athletic endeavour with political propaganda.

"Jan Ullrich gave the east a lot of pride, a lot of confidence. [...] When anyone from the East achieved anything, 17 million people celbrated the fact that they were one of us."

ullrich's father had also been a beneficiary of east-germany's talent identification programme, one that had revealed stefan ullrich's aptitude for running. this translated to his being appointed to the sport of short-track speed skating, winning the east german junior championships in 1967 and 68. ullrich's mother had begun studying botany prior to the birth of jan and on receipt of her diploma was given employment by an agricultural co-operative, a position that came with family lodgings.

ullrich's introduction to the world of cycle sport was, as his first coach, peter sager states, 'purely by fluke'. having no-one to feature in a nine-year old's race, sager had asked of those in attendance whether they had a younger sibling who might be persuaded to enter. "Jan was nine, had no training and won not only in his category but also the year above." sager subsequently signed him up to his first club, dynamo rostock west. "That was the start of it all."

i am not personally acquainted with many professional or former professional cyclists, but there's really no denying that, aside from riding at speeds of which you and i could only dream, they are a breed apart. it's a trait, albeit of a different hue, they share with artists and musicians, often identifying them as individuals within greater society. in the west, however, those who fit such a description are more or less left to their own devices to make their way in the world; to sink or swim by dint of their own efforts. one can only surmise how such individuality panned out when subjected to a state system that played an arguably intrusive part in the careers of its top sportspeople.

"At age eleven, [...] Ullrich trained three times a week and raced at weekends, clocking up around 2,500 kilometres over the year." as the author points out, as the berlin wall came down in november 1989, east germany, with a population of 17 million, had amassed a total of 519 olympic medals in the twenty years between 1968 and 1988. west germany, over the same period and with a population of 60 million, could manage only 253.

as a bike racer, ullrich is remembered primarily for his results in the tour de france, standing on the second step of the podium below telekom team leader, bjarne riis, in 1996, then going one better in 1997, becoming the first and only german ever to win the cycling season's principal three week tour, and by "the widest margin since Laurent Fignon in 1984 - nearly ten minutes."

"Ullrich had begun the summer of 1997 virtually unknown to the wider german public and was to end it as the greatest sportsman they had ever seen." pundits maintained that he was likely to rule those three weeks in july for probably the next ten years.

but if ullrich was famous for his boyish good looks and his impressive tour results in '96 and '97, he was also to become infamous for a more detrimental aspect of his less than impeccable behaviour over the winter off-season. as the author highlights in a quote from brian holm at the start of chapter eight 'the hunger games', "Basically you gain weight in the winter if you eat too much. It's not rocket science.". jan very soon garnered a reputation for eating rather too much in the off-season, eschewing the training kilometres that would mitigate the effects, or practising dietary restraint to prevent it happening in the first place.

"Ullrich had come to Pevenage's house for a meal but after his second helping, then his third, it had begun to feel more like a looting."

but even following his first tour win, suspicions had already been raised as to the nature of that victory, during a period of professional cycle racing that has subsequently come to be recognised as the beginning of its less than finest hour. not for nothing had ullrich's team leader in 1996, bjarne riis, become known as mister sixty percent, a less than veiled reference to his haematocrit level, ten percent above the uci's eventual upper limit. in the aftermath of ullrich's '97 victory, daniel friebe quotes banned journeyman pro, Jorg Paffrath, who had opened up in a magazine interview about the "...sordid reality of a jobbing cyclist..." he averred that scarcely anyone "...could ride the Tour de France on water and pasta. Most, in his experience, were also fuelled by EPO, growth hormone and steroids."

to profile one of the sport's most enigmatic riders, who spanned the careers of riis, pantani and armstrong, daniel friebe can scarcely have left any unturned stones. if the police put this much effort into solving crime, we'd none of us have to lock our doors at night, or padlock the bike to a lamp post. the list of interviewees in the course of writing this impressive, substantial volume, could be the very definition of the word 'comprehensive'. lance armstrong, walter godefroot, rudy pevenage, luigi cecchini, jorg jaksche, brian holm, peter sager and a whole host of others. all apart from jan ullrich himself.

the later chapters will not bring succour to those of us who preferred to believe that the tour could be won on bread and water, married to a draconian training regime. the fact that ullrich could return several kilos overweight at the start of each season, yet become competitive in very short order, we could surely put down to those early years in the ddr and bucket loads of natural talent. along with which, ullrich has an enviable reputation of being a 'nice guy'. daniel friebe's forensic examination of the darker aspects of ullrich's career, along with those of his peers, is compulsive to say the least, resulting in at least a couple of late bedtimes and cries of 'just one more chapter'.

however, the author's prowess is not only in penning over 400 pages without ever having spoken to the subject of his biography, but doing so in such an eloquent, erudite and readable style. the scene for what is to follow, is effectively set in friebe's introduction, the quality of which is worth the price of admission alone. with pantani's unfortunate demise in 2004 and the revelations and disgrace surrounding armstrong, ullrich's career seemed almost to have been forgotten. this book more than redresses the balance, though not always for the reasons for which we might have hoped.

"In this book we will hear from others who extol Ullrich's'everyman appeal', although one could easily make the opposite case - that it was his uncommonness that induced devotion among common men. [...] Perhaps, then, we can favour compassion over condemnation, and humbly acknowledge that a biography is at best an artist's impression - while at the same time believing that it can satisfy a thirst for better, if not total understanding."

'masterpiece' is arguably an over-used word, but if ever a book was deserving of such a description, this is probably it.

jan ullrich by daniel friebe, is published by macmillan on thursday 9 june.

wednesday 7 june 2022

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................