Jan Ullrich, the troubled modern icon of German cycling, secured a dominant victory in the Around Cologne cycle race on Monday, 15 months after his career was feared over.
New colors, old habit: Ullrich wins in Cologne
It would be too early to call it a second coming or even the rebirth of a cycling icon, but Jan Ullrich's first competitive victory since 2001 in Cologne on Easter Monday could certainly be described as akin to the return of the prodigal son.
Ullrich, 29, as well known for his out of the saddle exploits as for his cycling prowess, humbled a generally modest field to secure a symbolic win in the 202.3 kilometer "Around Cologne" event, his first race in his home country since injuries and a drugs scandal sidelined the Former Tour de France winner.
Riding for his new team Team Coast after falling out with the magenta-clad Team Telekom, the Rostock-born cyclist dominated the last 53 kilometers alone, and almost two minutes ahead of his nearest challenger, former Telekom teammate Danilo Hondo, to finish first in the 88th annual race. A crowd of more than a million race fans cheered Ullrich's every perambulation as he repeatedly attacked before his final breakaway.
"There are still miracles," said Ullrich after the race to the throng of jostling reporters, an indication of his standing despite his history of problems. "I wanted to get a good start in Germany, but certainly no one expected it to go as well as this. I'm incredibly happy."
Ullrich, the winner of the 1997 Tour de France, last raced more than 15 months ago -- an enforced hiatus caused by recurring knee problems, operations and that scandal. He very publicly tested positive for amphetamines last June and admitted that he had taken pills at a nightclub during a "personal crisis," thought to have developed from a dismal season blighted by injuries. He was subsequently banned from racing for six months, a ban that ended in March.
Last victory in 2001
His last race in Germany was the Tour of Rhineland-Palatinate in September 2001. It was his first cycling victory since winning the time trial on October 11, 2001 at the World Championships in Lisbon. But his meteoric rise to the top of his sport aptly went downhill after that and he parted company with Team Telekom in acrimony and disgrace.
The road to Ullrich's latest recovery began when he returned to training last November and continued in January of this year when he signed with Coast. He returned to racing earlier this month in the Tour de la Sarthe in France and took part in the Tour of Aragon in Spain last week. Where his career goes from here is in his own hands but his quest for the pinnacles of the sport is as evident as ever before.
Tour de France is the goal
Tour champion Lance Armstrong.
"I'm not interested in the problems in the past and those that may possibly be in front of me," Ullrich said. "I'm concentrating on my comeback. The goal is the Tour de France. That's where I want to see how far along I am against Lance Armstrong (four times Tour winner, photo). My season high point could be the world championships in Canada in the autumn." Many regard Ullrich as the only man capable of breaking Texan Armstrong's stranglehold on the Tour de France, the world's greatest cycle race.
"It was obvious to see that Jan is feeling good," said Ullrich's new team manager Wolfgang Strohband as Coast celebrated the victory in Germany's fourth largest city. There was no talk of the rider's well-known ability to cause friction between himself and his teammates through his reputation, financial demands and personality.
"I haven't yet had a lot of contact with the others (his fellow Team Coast riders) but don't anticipate any problems there," Ullrich said. "We were together for 12 days in Spain... Sure, there are some who are unhappy but we have to deflect that. We are trying to keep the team together."
But Monday's victory almost wasn't such a happy return to his native land for Ullrich and his new teammates. Team Coast's license was temporarily withdrawn by ruling body UCI over non-payment of riders' wages but it was returned to them last month before the UCI confirmed last Tuesday that the team had the right to compete until the end of the year.
Team Coast spokesman Marcel Wuest said the UCI had received evidence that the riders had been paid. He added that the team was considering legal action to seek compensation