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Culture

Jan Ullrich Pedals Back on Track

Jan Ullrich pulls out the pedal power and races to close the gap between the Tour de France’s top leader Lance Armstrong after a victorious sprint on the tour’s 12th stage and a strong second place on Saturday.

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Germany's Jan Ullrich closes in on Lance Armstrong's lead in the Tour de France.

"Jan is back!" screamed the headlines of Germany’s newspapers on Saturday. After a spectacular win in the Tour de France time trial on Friday brought him to within half a minute of the tour’s overall leader, Lance Armstrong, and a strong second-place showing in the 13th stage narrowed the lead even further, Germany’s best chance for winning this year’s race looks like he’s finally back on track.

Jan Ullrich, who won the Tour de France in 1997 and since then has more often made headlines for his scandals than sporting feats, was jubilant after finishing the 12th stage of the tour 1 minute and 36 seconds ahead of the four-time tour winner Armstrong. "I am overjoyed, I never expected that. I just wanted to have a good tour. Now I have a tour win. I am close to tears," Ullrich was quoted in Saturday's edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

"Anything is possible," the triumphant Ullrich said after his Friday win.

Even Ullrich’s manager Wolfgang Strohband was surprised with the performance of the Bianchi team captain. "The tour is now wide open again. I could not believe that he [Ullrich] could beat Armstrong so convincingly," he told the Frankfurt-based newspaper.

Closing in on yellow

And after coming in second to Carlos Sastre on the 13th stage on Saturday, Ullrich’s race for victory picked up speed and stamina. He is now seated in the overall second spot, just 15 seconds away from the coveted yellow jersey currently worn by Armstrong. His chances of holding on to the number two position or even advancing in the next few days look the best they have in a long time.

"I’m happy Jan wasn’t afraid [on Saturday] and didn’t hold back on the attack," Bianchi team coach Rudy Pevenage said to reporters.

Heading into the next three days in the Pyrenees, Armstrong will have to keep a close eye on Ullrich, who has finished the tour second on four occasions. In the words of Die Welt, "the showdown is coming in the Pyrenees."

Jan Ullrich gewinnt 12. Etappe der Tour de France

Jan Ullrich has returned to the Tour de France a winner.

Jan’s comeback

A year ago Ullrich didn’t look like he could muster up the strength to challenge Armstrong. His career had hit rock bottom after a doping ban for Ecstasy and a reoccurring knee injury sidelined him for months and forced him out of last year’s tour competition. He then began racking up strikes against his name for wild partying and traffic violations. He put on weight and lost several races. Then, after leaving Team Telekom, Ullrich struggled to find his footing with a new team, Coast, which disbanded after only a few races due to its inability to pay its cyclists.

"He was a crashed hero a year ago," wrote Bild newspaper columnist Matthias Brügelmann on Saturday. "He had disappeared, was a nobody. He could have retired altogether, relaxed with the millions he had made."

But Ullrich was already working on his comeback. In May, he switched to the mint-green jersey of the Italian bicycle manufacture Bianchi and has worked hard to get himself back in shape. In June he put in a good fifth place showing at the Deutschland Tour, but fell far short of what the Rostock-born cyclist knew he was capable of doing.

Friday’s victory in the 47-kilometer time trial at Cap Decouverte and his rapid closing in on Armstrong on Saturday now proves Germany’s cycling hero has returned and that he is ready to go head-to-head with Armstrong. "It’s going to be a sensational battle to the finish between the two giants of the sport," Die Welt newspaper prophesized on Saturday.

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