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The Annual State-of-Der-Jan Address

Since Jan Ullrich and his condition are the subject of both media speculation and a fair amount of blogging, it's a good time to take a hard look at the former next great cyclist.

It's a little known fact that his career has not exactly been a disaster. Ullrich has won, in no particular order, an amateur world road championship, a Tour, a Vuelta, an Olympic road race gold medal and time trial silver, a Tour de Suisse, a German national championship or two, and four other podiums in the Tour.

What is known is that he hasn't won what he should have because he hasn't mastered his conditioning. What should be known, but is rarely acknowledged, is that he also may be the unluckiest guy in the Peloton.

Ullrich has never managed to escape the high expectations that come from winning the Tour in rather dominant fashion at the ripe old age of 23. So whatever his palmares, there is almost no way for it to be enough. Worse, he has consistently fed the tut-tutting media with his legendary slow winters. In a sense, he has nobody to blame but himself: by all accounts he's got an overflow of god-given talent, and his metabolism has worked well enough in certain years to vault him straight to the top. In the end, if he isn't strong enough, he probably hasn't done the work.

That said, his run of bad luck is incredible:

  • After winning the Tour, his youth gets the best of him and he shows up unprepared to defend at a Tour remembered mostly for drugs. OK, that one's pretty much on him. Be patient, we're just getting started.
  • While getting himself back on track, the greatest Tour Cyclist in history inserts himself into Ullrich's narrative. In response, Ullrich breaks his elbow in a crash and he misses the 1999 Tour.
  • Ullrich comes back and wins the Vuelta, setting up the showdown with Armstrong in the 2000 Tour... where he establishes himself as a clear second. Same for 2001. It's not like he sucked in these years: he scored his two Olympic medals in 2000. Like I said, in any other era, he'd have been dominant. Not this one.
  • Plagued by depression after losing to Armstrong, Ullrich develops knee problems, and while off the bike he drops E, runs over some bikes (psychiatrists having a field day here), and gets busted. In response, the UCI suspends him for six months, ending his 2002 Tour hopes. How bad does your luck have to be to even be caught taking a party drug, let alone prosecuted by the UCI while out of competition? I've yet to figure out how this is the UCI's business. Even if he'd taken Ecstasy during a race and sped on up the road, before long he'd miss the peloton and slow down to hug someone. T-Mobile severs its ties with Ullrich.
  • Starting over with a team quickly cobbled together right before the Tour (after his new outfit COAST implodes), Ullrich drops two minutes in the first week... then turns it on and loses only after a crash in the final ITT. His deficit is 1:01 -- half of what he lost in the first week's disorganization. If he'd had T-Mobile to protect him, maybe that first week would have been different. Yeah, I know, but it's not like it could've been worse.
  • 2004, Ullrich is a new dad, and like all new dads he contracts a nasty cold from his kid at the worst time. He starts poorly and ends up off the podium for the first time ever.
  • 2005, Ullrich celebrates his return to form by launching himself through the back windscreen of his team car the day before the opening stage. Soldiering on through a mild case of shock, Ullrich suffers the indignity of being passed by Lance and drops more than a minute.
  • This year, stories abounded in February of how fit and driven Ullrich appeared in winter camps. Fast forward a few months, and more knee trouble forces him off his bike, where he loses his form.

At least some of Ullrich's problems could have been overcome by better training. Maybe he suffers from real depression, or maybe he's just had a lot of personal problems that have sapped his will (he had a kid with Gabi but then broke up with her not long after). But at least part of his problems, a large part, is crap luck.

BTW, this Riis business... what does it mean to be called out like that? In American sports, if Joe Torre publicly dissed Curt Schilling, it would be six months of war, minimum. But cyclists aren't usually very volatile, and in a sense this was parental tough love. Ullrich and Riis were teammates back when they both won the Tour, and Riis famously tried to nab and rehab Jan during his E suspension.  Cyclists and team managers aren't exactly strangers to each other anyway, in the compressed environment in which they live. So maybe it's viewed as a thoughtful if dramatic gesture. Still, it's odd that it went away so quickly. In the States, the verbal tennis could go on for weeks.