Germany proud of Ullrich after Tour dramaPosted: Sunday July 27, 2003 9:13 AM
Updated: Sunday July 27, 2003 2:00 PM
PARIS (Reuters) -- This year's Tour de France allowed Jan Ullrich to make it back into the limelight quicker than even he expected and his duel with Lance Armstrong in 2004 already looks set to be a fascinating one.
Even if his return to the Tour after a dreadful year spent nursing a knee injury while serving a doping ban ended in disappointing fashion when he crashed in the final time trial, the German was not far from his best in the three weeks of the centenary race.
Always singled out by Armstrong as his leading rival, the 1997 Tour winner, second one minute and one second behind the American, could be the rider who stops the Texan from winning a record sixth time.
"After all that I've been through, to be in the Tour de France this year was a reward and overall, I cannot be sad," said the Bianchi team leader.
"I challenged Lance Armstrong as I was only 15 seconds behind him after the Ax-3 Domaines stage but I'm a little surprised everything went so well.
"I only came to the Tour hoping to prepare for 2004," he added.
Ullrich's recovery is something of a miracle as he looked lost to cycling a year ago.
In the Tour of Qatar in 2002, he had appeared fitter and leaner than usual until things turned bad for the rider seen by many as the most gifted of his generation.
A painful knee led to an operation in May, forcing Ullrich out of action for months.
Off his bike, the Rostock rider still made headlines, but for the wrong reasons.
He was fined for drunk driving before failing a random dope test for amphetamines while in a training camp in Germany. He later said that he had taken Ecstasy at a party.
While the 2002 Tour started from Luxembourg, Ullrich was down in the dumps, banned, his salary suspended by his team Telekom which he finally decided to quit after seven years.
He contemplated ending his career, but finally chose to leave his hometown of Merdingen to move to Switzerland with his wife Gaby.
The couple had a baby daughter, Sarah Maria, in June.
Ullrich, 29, also changed teams and after turning down an offer from Danish team CSC, led by his former teammate Bjarne Riis, he joined Team Coast to stay with his friend Rudy Pevenage, who was named the German outfit's sport director.
But more problems arose when Coast proved unable to pay the riders' salaries and was suspended by the International Cycling Union (UCI).
Ullrich was forced to quickly assemble a makeshift team under the colors of cycling manufacturer Bianchi.
In spite of all his problems, the German kept training hard and confirmed his fine form in the Tour of Switzerland.
"I came on the Tour to win a stage and prepare for next year. But to challenge Lance for overall victory was not in my plans.
"Only a crash could have helped me beat Lance and I wouldn't have wanted it to happen," said Ullrich, who waited for his rival when he crashed on the climb to Luz-Ardiden.
Armstrong and Ullrich shook hands on the podium as if making an appointment for next year.
Germany proud of Ullrich
BERLIN (Reuters) -- Germany woke up Sunday feeling both proud of Jan Ullrich and sorry for him after a crash shattered his dream of winning the Tour de France for the second time.
Ullrich's unexpected revival on this year's race sparked a mania in his native country and millions of fans were glued to their television sets when he fell in Saturday's decisive time trial.
The 29-year-old Ullrich became everybody's darling after he gave Germany its first Tour triumph in 1997 but had been through hard times since.
The East-German-born rider had been criticized for wasting his potential by not training hard enough and for not having the mental strength of his archrival, Lance Armstrong.
German media had even suggested that Ullrich would probably have won the Tour had he not waited for Armstrong after the American fell earlier in the race.
Sunday's newspaper Bild am Sonntag, which dedicated five full pages to Saturday's drama, said an oil patch on the road was responsible for Ullrich's misfortune and also blamed superior powers.
"The God of the Tour was against him," screamed the front-page headline.
Prominent Germans told the newspaper how much they admired Ullrich, with three-times Wimbledon winner Boris Becker echoing a general feeling by saying: "Jan proved this year that he was a fighter with a big heart. He is the real hero of this Tour."
"Lance was beatable this year," Ullrich told Bild am Sonntag.
"But I had certainly not expected that I would be able to fight for overall victory this year."
Ullrich said his thoughts now turned to his baby girl, Sarah Maria, who was born on July 1.
"To leave for the Tour a day after she was born was tough," he said. "At least I was able to call home with the mobile and I could hear her cry. I can't wait to hold her in my arms."
The proud father also promised he would be back on the Tour next year and would do his best to stop Armstrong from becoming the first man to win the race six times.
"The years to come belong to me," Ullrich said.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.