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Preview '06: Changing the Guard in Deutschland

The idea of previewing teams two at a time originated in efficiency and nothing else, but along the way we've accidentally stumbled on to an important point: the way teams compete amongst themselves.  OK, maybe not Rabo and CSC, but clearly Davitamon and Quick-Step keep close tabs on each other.  And in Germany, the competition between the Goliaths of T-Mobile and the Gerolsteiner Davids is as keen as it gets.

For years, T-Mobile (nee Deutsche Telekom) have carried the German flag in European cycling.  Its standard-bearer, of course, has been Jan Ullrich all these years (except the one where he took ecstasy and ran over some bikes), and it's with good reason that the world thinks of German Cycling in dark pink and white.  Ullrich is the first (and last) German Tour winner, T-Mobile is the first German team to win a grand Tour, right? At the very least, they changed the level of interest of a nation long on the fringe of European Cycling.

History Trivia Moment

Nearly encircled by longtime Cycling powerhouse nations, Germany's exclusion from the sport's inner circle is a bit confusing to my fresh American perspective. Somewhere in the PodiumCafe Library of Cycling is an explanation, but for now it's a mystery to me. Germans have been racing the Classics and Tours from the get-go, but never with more than sporadic success.

Nowhere is this better captured than Paris-Roubaix, where Josef Fischer captured the first-ever Hell of the North in 1896... and also holds the dual distinction as Germany's last winner there.

Germany's other palmares of interest:

  • Rudi Altig established firsts with wins at Milan-San Remo (1968) and de Ronde (1964), and only Steffen Wesemann (2004) joins him in winning the latter (the former having become a Zabel tademark).
  • Andreas Klier's win at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2003 was a first.
  • Olaf Ludwig (1992) and Zabel (2000) both copped some Amstel gold.
  • Rolf Golz won La Fleche (1988), a first, and became the fourth German winner at Zurich, after Adolf Huschke (1923), Hans Junkermann(1957), and Didi Thurau (1978).
  • Thurau's 1979 win at Liege was a second, following only Herman Buse in 1930.
  • Jurgen Tschan owns the only pre-Zabel German win at Paris-Tours; nobody from the Fatherland has ever taken nearby Lombardy.
  • Grand Tours? Just Ullrich once each in France and Spain, and Altig (1962) and Rolf Wolfshohl (1965) in the Vuelta; no Giro wins, period.
Tomorrow is another day

After so many lean years, German Cycling is more robust than ever -- and undergoing tectonic change.  Ullrich's Tour win inspired a nation, and Zabel's long, successful run of Classics and Green Jerseys has solidified the country's place among the Cycling nations. But both riders, and the sponsor who made it possible, are barely hanging on against a rising tide of new talent.

Gerolsteiner have only been around since 1998 and a PCT-level team since 2002, but in that short time they have caught and passed T-Mobile, at least in performance if not in notoriety.  Nowhere was this made clearer than in the Tour of Germany, one of 2005's best races by all accounts, where the two home teams battled tooth-and-nail... and where Gerolsteiner's Levi Leipheimer stole the prize from none other than Big Jan by dropping him to win the queen stage and hanging on in the TTs.  

Granted, this was just one race, and a better case for Gerolsteiner as a team can be made on the strength of two years of all-round performance, starting with Davide Rebellin's mind-boggling 2004 Ardennes Triple, followed by its all-round performance in 2005 where they ranked sixth on the PCT (to T-Mobile's 12th). Still, Gerolsteiner has never matched T-Mobile at the Tour -- and we all know what pays the bills -- so winning in the Deutschland Tour over Ullrich was as sweet as it gets.

But despite its relative success in 2005, Gerolsteiner can't expect fans at home to abandon T-Mobile until they develop some homegrown talent.  With foreigners Leipheimer, Rebellin and Georg Totschnig getting near the end of their good years, there is future homegrown hope in youngsters Fabian Wegmann (already knocking on the door of some Classics) and Markus Fothen (12th at the Giro). Stefan Schumacher and David Kopp are two other kids to watch (Kopp scored a win last week in Spain). In the meantime, the Gerolsteiners can watch Leipheimer close in on a Tour podium -- this year's vanilla course being ideally suited to his TT strengths -- while gunning for classics and other sprints with Rebellin, Wegmann, Robert Forster and Heinrich Haussler.

[Ed] Note the refreshing lack of Rene Haselbacher cracks. An important development.

T-Mobile... where to start? For a few years they have been impossible to understand without consulting professional help. More stellar careers have gone into remission on their watch than any other team... Julich, Cadel Evans, Savoldelli, Aitor Gonzalez; even the successful imports like Vinokourov still didn't fit any team plan. But they have nonetheless had their moments, and anyway the German team with the German stars -- Ullrich, Zabel, Kloden, Steffen Wesemann -- will always occupy a special place in the hearts and minds, right? [Disclaimer: I'm not even slightly German, but this seems obvious.]

This year the roster is less glitter but maybe a little more punch. Ullrich is back as the undisputed Tour leader, with a real opportunity to win for once. Michael Rogers and presumably Kloden are the lieutenants with aims at the next tier goals. Zabel can't be replaced, but young Andre Greipel's emergence would be to the delight of everyone if he can pull it off at age 24. Wesemann, Andreas Klier and Kim Kirchen will ably man the April Classics.

I've got an Ullrich essay in me, which I'll save for later. Both these teams will keep things very interesting this year, especially in July.