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New blood

A German tour-ist makes history

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Posted: Thursday July 06, 2000 04:02 PM

Issue date: August 4, 1997

The lingering ill will between France and Germany dissipated a bit more on Sunday. For the first time in the 94-year history of the world's most celebrated bicycle race, a German-Jan Ullrich, born 23 years ago in the tiny village of Rostock in what was then East Germany-won the Tour de France. On a brilliant afternoon, he stood on a podium on the Champs-Elysees and sang the anthem of his country as tens of thousands of Parisians, more than a few of them old enough to remember the Nazi terror, stared at him with awe. His performance was so stirring that the French seemed to have little trouble embracing him.

Ullrich covered the 2,455 miles of the course, over one of the Tour's most grueling layouts in years, at an average speed of 24.38 mph, finishing 9:09 ahead of Richard Virenque of France in what was the largest victory margin in 13 years. Ullrich rides for a German team, Telekom, as does Denmark's Bjarne Riis, the 1996 champion, who was supposed to be Telekom's leader this year. In the early days of the three-week event, Ullrich worked selflessly for Riis, chasing the front-runners, expending his own energy for the welfare of the team. But during the 10th stage, through the Pyrenees, Ullrich assumed control of his team and the race, winning the stage by 68 seconds. He put on the yellow jersey that night and never came close to relinquishing it.

Ullrich's triumph recalled the 1986 breakthrough of U.S. racer Greg LeMond, who went on to win twice more over the next four years and served as an inspiration to Ullrich. Like LeMond, Ullrich had foreshadowed his victory by winning the final time trial the year before; like LeMond, he had unseated the veteran leader of his team; like LeMond, he had become the first from his nation to wear the yellow jersey in Paris. While LeMond was all of 25 when he won the first of his three Tours, only seven winners in the Tour's 84 races have been younger than Ullrich. Few have been more dominant. "He doesn't know how strong he is," says tour rival Marco Pantani of Italy. "This guy has to be from Mars."


 
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