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Culture

The Winding Ways of an Unequal Rivalry

If everything goes as expected, Lance Armstrong will celebrate his seventh consecutive Tour de France victory on Sunday. Over that span, his biggest foe has been Jan Ullrich.

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Ullrich and Armstrong: The Texan always had the upper hand

For cycling enthusiasts, the image of Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich at the base of Alpe d'Huez in 2001 is probably branded in their memories.

The duel on the tenth stage had risen to a climactic pitch. Armstrong feigned fatigue on the first two climbs. And then on the final ascent, Armstrong threw a glance over his shoulder at Ullrich and then took off, leaving the Team Telekom (later T-Mobile) rider to get a good view of his back wheel -- and then nothing as Armstrong rambled up the mountain.

JAHRESRÜCKBLICK 2003 JULI TOUR DE FRANCE

Armstrong's crash was one of the highlights of the 2003 Tour de France. He would recover from the spill and win the Tour

Armstrong took that stage an absolutely amazing two minutes ahead of Ullrich, sealing the fate of the German cyclist in 2001, and in fact, for the next four years.

Lance Armstrong could quite conceivably go down as the greatest rider in the history of the sport with his seven straight victories. And Jan Ullrich was on three of those occasions the bridesmaid, second place. This year, the German cyclist has jumped to third.

Promising start for Rostock-born Ullrich

Jan Ullrich was born on December 2, 1973 in Rostock, Germany. Trained in the East German sports training tradition, he showed great promise as a bike rider. The great successes came early. In 1996, he finished second to teammate Bjarne Riis at the Tour, and many speculated openly that he could have beaten his captain. As a junior member on the squad, though, team leaders ordered the team to fight for Riis and Ullrich demurred.

Jan Ullrich 1997

Jan Ullrich winning the 1997 Tour de France

The next year, the favor was returned and Jan Ullrich won his first, and only, Tour de France, becoming the first, and only, German to win the cycling world's most prestigious race. After one victory, there was talk of Ullrich becoming a tour de force on the Tour. But that wouldn't come to be. In the coming years, Armstrong would receive the accolades and the early tours in the new millennium would be dominated by the rivalry between Armstrong and Ullrich.

The Armstrong years

In 2000 and 2001, Ullrich would have to look up to the American on the winner's podium. The Texan had won three in a row. Ullrich would no longer be the legend, but rather Lance Armstrong.

Problems with his weight, what many people described as a lack of dedication to training and incidents with alcohol and ecstasy off the bike dogged Ullrich in 2002. Many thought his career was over. A case of much potential that never blossomed.

Jan Ullrich nur noch 15 Sekunden hinter Armstrong, 13. Etappe Tour de France

His year with Team Bianchi brought Ullrich back into the bike racing spotlight

His contract with German Team Telekom cancelled, he got back up on his wheeled-horse and signed a deal with the little-known Team Bianchi for 2003. That year, he surprised the field. Armstrong was struggling to win his record-tying fifth Tour. Ullrich was back in the headlines.

But he fell short again, coming in second place and watching Armstrong make history.

Return to T-Mobile

In 2004, Ullrich returned to T-Mobile. It was a bittersweet move after being ostracized by the team in 2002. The hopes of Germany rested on the 1997 winner but surprisingly his teammate Andreas Klöden finished third, one spot ahead of Ullrich. The winner, well, we know who that was.

2005, Lance Armstrong's final year to race in France on the Tour was the final chance for Ullrich to extract a bit of revenge. Yet the fighting spirit mandatory to beat that ferocious tiger named Lance Armstrong was missing. Or was just never there.

"Jan won't ever win again," was the harsh assessment from former teammate Riis. "He can't push himself hard enough anymore. He doesn't try anything new."

Many people, fans, journalists and experts wondered why he couldn't respond to the attacks of Armstrong on the mountains. But it might be better to ask why should Jan Ullrich be the only one to respond? No one could.

Tour de France Sieger Lance Armstrong in Paris 2002

Lance Armstrong during one of his ceremonious rides on the final stage through Paris

There hasn't been a rider like Lance Armstrong in the history of professional cycling. And may well never be. So finishing second three times to the best is not the worst accomplishment. And those close to the sport agree the criticism is unfair.

"He's got everything that we all like -- he's a human being with weaknesses like us all. I'd be happy to have him on my team," Hans Holczer, head of the Gerolsteiner team told Reuters.

When the Tour de France ends on Sunday, Armstrong will exit the stage. Maybe just maybe, then 32-year old Ullrich can win his second Tour de France.

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