German cycling star Jan Ullrich has announced he will once again don the pink jersey of Team Telekom. The return of Telekom’s prodigal son is likely to prove beneficial to both racer and sponsor.
Jan Ullrich has come back into the Telekom fold.
Only a year after leaving the squad following a racing ban for drug use, Ullrich on Sunday rejoined Deutsche Telekom’s team. The move is both an important step in Ullrich’s return to the sport’s upper ranks and a marketing coup for the telecom behemoth.
The 29 year-old Ullrich has had a roller-coaster ride with his long-time cycling sponsor Deutsche Telekom. After joining Team Telekom in 1995, he quickly became the outfit’s star cyclist, culminating in his 1997 Tour de France victory. However, things quickly went south after that win and Telekom unceremoniously dumped Ullrich last year, as he battled with reoccurring knee problems and recreational drug use that led to a racing ban after testing positive for amphetamines.
Some may be surprised by Ullrich’s decision to return to the team that was so quick to spurn him, but in many ways it’s a mercenary deal on both sides: Telekom wants the exposure and Ullrich wants to win the Tour de France again. Although he managed a spectacular comeback and well-deserved second place finish at this year’s Tour, he had expressed concern that his last sponsor Bianchi could not cobble together the necessary talent to win in 2004.
“The deciding factor was that I’ve been second at the Tour often enough, and in coming years I’d like to mount a challenge – and for that I need a team that is strong enough,” Ullrich said on Sunday at a press conference.
Telekom certainly has the depth needed to unseat Ullrich’s rival Texan Lance Amstrong, who has dominated the Tour de France since the German’s victory in 1997. Racing alongside Ullrich next year will be 2003 Tour third place finisher Alexander Vinokourov and sprint-meister Erik Zabel.
Lucrative three-year contract
And then of course there’s the estimated €8 million ($9.4 million) Telekom will pay him to wear the pink jersey of its wireless T-Mobile unit for the next three years to sweeten the deal. But in light of Ullrich’s impressive comeback and his immense popularity in Germany and elsewhere, T-Mobile executive René Obermann considers it money well spent.
“We believe that Jan Ullrich is definitely worth the price that we’re investing and that we are not paying too much,” Obermann said. “Besides he apparently had better offers than ours on the table.”
The mobile operator is hoping to bask in the success that seems pre-programmed following Ullrich’s newfound competitive instincts and desire to win, according to Gerhard Schwede, an economist from the University of Münster. He said another Tour de France victory would more than outweigh Ullrich’s past crises in the minds of fans.
“What is necessary at the Tour de France is absolute top performance, long endurance and always staying at the front – those are attributes that T-Mobile would like to have,” Schwede told Deutsche Welle. So T-Mobile is likely to cater to its prodigal son’s every need now, even though Ullrich’s decision to come back to the Telekom fold probably has less to do with his sympathies for the company than the realization that it could be an advertising cash cow for him even long after he’s stopped cycling.