Jan Ullrich's hopes of winning the Tour de France took a blow this weekend after the German failed to keep pace with defending champion Lance Armstrong in the first mountain stages.
The T-Mobile captain struggled in the Pyrenees
Ullrich went into this year's Tour de France with the aim of unseating the Armstrong, but the trouble for Germany's favorite cyclist started on Friday after he lost two and a half minutes on the Texan as the Tour took to the Pyrenees.
"It was a very black day for me. I noticed at the first mountain I didn't have good legs and I was cold on the downhill. Maybe I can still manage something," Ullrich said. He had previously said he felt good about Friday's 12th stage.
After wining the Tour de France himself in 1997, Ulllrich has been runner-up a whopping five times. Three of those second places came behind a victory by US Postal team captain Armstrong, who beat him in 2003 by just 61 seconds.
Things didn't go any better for Ullrich on Saturday, when he lost two minutes and 41 seconds on Armstrong. Ullrich is now over six minutes behind Armstrong.
Ullrich's woes have followed a familiar pattern over the years. Although he is considered one of the most talented cyclists of his generation, he is often unable to dig deep and find the necessary strength when he needs it most. Whether he can find the motivation to beat Armstrong this year remains to be seen, but whereas the Texan exudes cool confidence, Ullrich seems uncertain.
Only a helper?
Perhaps most telling were Ullrich's comments on Friday that he would support the strongest member of his T-Mobile team if he did not have a chance to win the Tour himself. As he struggled up the mountain, his helper Andreas Klöden powered to a third place finish on Friday.
"I wouldn't have a problem working as a helper. Klöden is riding well and could a joker for the team," he said.
Lance Armstrong from the US is reflected in the mirror of a motorcycle as he rides during the 12th stage of the Tour de France.
But Armstrong has not yet written off his German rival: "Jan's not finished. He's a tough guy who doesn't give up. He might have taken one on the chin but he always comes back and is strong in the last week."
Still, Armstrong now looks set to win a record sixth Tour de France after another potential challenger, American Tyler Hamilton, pulled out of competition on Saturday. Hamilton suffered a back injury last week in a crash and like Ullrich, he too was unable to keep up with Armstrong's punishing pace on Friday.