Title: Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was
Author: Daniel Friebe
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
What it is: A proper biography, and a quest to really rediscover the enigmatic former Tour de France winner, Jan Ullrich
Strengths: Colorfully written portrait of the rider through the eyes of the people who know him best, at least from the cycling world.
Weaknesses: Not all quests end in a satisfying manner.
Since the dawn of the Podium Cafe (18 years and counting, yo!), cycling bookshelves have been filling up with fall-from-grace stories. Some of them are just that — see the Lance Armstrong Room at the Texas State Library and Archives. Some are motivated by pleas for redemption on the author’s part, with varying degrees of sincerity ranging from “deal with it”-levels of denial to guys trying to move on with their lives. And then there are a select handful that are... just something else. Stories lined with immutable strains of yearning that stir our souls in ways that overcome the drabness of another doping epic. Quite a few Italian fans will enthusiastically go right to this place when discussing Marco Pantani. A few American followers can’t help themselves when thinking of Floyd Landis’ epic stage attack at the 2006 Tour de France. Stories like this enter into the gray areas of cycling fandom, greatness, and ethics.
Like the Jan UIlrich story. Famously a product of the East German sports system, just as the country and its systematic sports doping were crumbling to the ground, Ullrich emerged from behind the Iron Curtain to become that most cautionary of tales, a super-talented athlete who rocketed to a superstardom for which he was uniquely — historically? — unprepared. Before long, he began to pay a steep price for this, and like a beautiful mirage spotted in a scorching hot desert, he just disappeared before we knew what happened.
It’s remarkable that only very recently, with the publishing of Daniel Friebe’s Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was, could we even read and English language telling of this story. Friebe’s book was issued almost a year ago by Pan Macmillan Press, to significant acclaim, getting 4.5 stars on Amazon and its share of glowing reviews around the sport. There are at least four prior books published in German: a pair of forgettable items dropped back in 2003, plus Der Fall Jan Ullrich from 2007. Almost simultaneously with Friebe’s book comes Ulle, by Sebastian Moll, well known to Ullrich, who (per one description) “analyzes his career in a benevolent and appreciative manner,” whatever that means. I’ve seen references to an autobiography “written” by Jan — probably not a great read at this point. Oh, and there is a four-part Amazon Prime series that Ullrich himself has spoken of as if that’s the long-awaited real story of his career, but like so much associated with the man, it was scheduled for release several months ago but has not arrived.
Anyway, Friebe, armed with his own rather heartfelt approach and considerable language skills, has attempted to go deep on the subject, the real question lingering in our minds, specifically why did his career turn out the way it did? You may know Friebe from a variety of sources — his books, his past as a beat reporter, or most likely his present as the erudite-yet-affable host of the Cycling Podcast, where he has stepped into the shoes of the show’s beloved late founder Richard Moore, and done a truly admirable job of carrying the very popular show into its next iteration.
With his skills and experience, Friebe is well qualified to find sources around Europe, glean as much of the story, and tell it as elegantly as possible. This is a guy who wrote a Merckx biography. But The Best There Never Was is unique in that it took Friebe close to seven years to complete, a journey that reflects the nature of the book, which is itself an arduous quest to not just tell the nuts and bolts story of a notable cyclist, but to understand it.
Ullrich will forever be remembered as the first official German champion of the Tour de France — I say official, because unlike his bête noire, Armstrong, his results still stand. But does his place in German hearts? Maybe. The more difficult calculation is where that Germany stands in his heart — a Germany in which he did not grow up and in which he has not lived full time since 2002. Tour de France winners are almost always received as national heroes, particularly the first-ever winners, back home, but if there is a more complicated dynamic than Ullrich’s relationship to his fans, you’d have to go back at least as far as the Walkowiak victory in 1956 to find it. And even there, while Walko’s victory might not have gotten the recognition it deserved at home, at least he was at home.
Culturally, there is plenty of documentation about how citizens of the former East Germany have struggled to fit into the new reunified nation. Maybe this is fading now, but not for guys like Ullrich, who not only straddled both sides of the timeline, but who was quite literally raised as a son of the state, in its vaunted sports academy, and with coaches stepping into the vacant role of father. I can’t really imagine a more poignant example of an East German citizen set up to struggle with the cultural implications of Germany’s unification. And yet, a day after winning the 1997 Tour de France, there he was smiling to a packed city center in Bonn where tens of thousands of fans screamed out his name. Ullrich once commented that a year after his second place, when “even my postman didn’t know who I was... now women are throwing themselves at me.”
He was not merely being hailed as a patriotic German citizen, but as an athletic phenomenon, the greatest rider of his generation — which, given his 23 years, was just getting started. L’Equipe, the French sports media keepers of the Yellow Flame, proclaimed “Voila! Le Patron,” conferring untouchable status on his young shoulders, a successor of Hinault. Raymond Poulidor, now known fondly as Mathieu van der Poel’s grandpa as well as a French cycling hero, stood by the side of the road in Arcalis as Ullrich soared to his iconic stage victory, proclaiming “c’est Merckx.” People watching, people who should know, they all put Jan in another category.
This is just part of why Ullrich transcends the fallen-star label, to that of someone whose vast potential we can still dream about, if only we can unwind history and take EPO and other doping strategies out of the sport. Nobody does this for Armstrong, who wasn’t taken seriously as a grand tour winner prior to his cancer diagnosis. Few outside Italy do this for Pantani, who seems more like a generational climbing talent to whom we can certainly begrudge one Tour victory, but not much more. But Ullrich, he was the total package. He was Merckx, he was Hinault. He was going to take the sport and make it all his own.
And boy did he ever not come through.
Why Did Jan ... Do Whatever It Was He Did?
I am avoiding saying Ullrich failed, because he won one Tour, a Vuelta, Olympic Gold, world titles and so on. He entered the Tour eight times and came away with seven podium finishes (one since retracted for doping in 2005). His worst year, he finished fourth. The list of riders who would trade it all for that record is long.
But there is no denying the disappointment from his inability to win a second Tour, particularly when the reasons for this mostly aren’t visible to fans. So — even conceding that “he will win 10 Tours” created overblown expectations — why did he go down this pathway of vastly lowered rates of success from even reasonable expectations?
Let’s look at some of the reasons people have cited.
Undefined Mental Health Issues
I am going to start here because Friebe quotes one rider after another saying stuff about Ullrich that expresses what we might have written off as quirks 25 years ago but now view as mental health issues, a common thread running through all of his problems.
Some of the adjectives used to describe Ullrich are careless, inattentive, unrealistic, naive, overly optimistic, indecisive, impulsive and so on. He discounts his mistakes when his sheer talent overcomes them, rather than owning up to them. At several turns he is described as terrified, overwhelmed, crumbling under the pressure of his situation — even in seemingly good times, like on the verge of his breakthrough Tour win. He is frequently quick to shut out people who he thinks are trying to force him to do something, mostly avoiding the mistakes that he will then go on to discount. There is stubbornness and then there is this sort of reactiveness that causes him to act against his own interests. All of this is well corroborated by the people closest to him at Telekom.
Yet, for all the damage this did to his career, when he wasn’t exasperating his teammates he was stunning them with how he could suddenly turn back into the superstar talent and succeed — up to a point. He also seemed well liked or even loved on a personal level. Or at least the guys we hear from in Friebe’s book tended to be on his side, when they were done pulling their hair out.
The anxiety can be inherited or caused by damaging experiences,... not my profession, so I’ll just say that there is ample evidence that he could not cope with the overwhelming attention and pressure of being who he was, especially during the Tour. [And in a few other races, although he often thrived in big moments outside the Tour. He’d have made a spectacular one-day racer, with no next day to get stressed about.] He tried to retire several times, including early in 2001, and is described by Friebe’s witnesses as seeming relieved on the occasions where he had to skip the Tour (‘99 and ‘02, with knee injuries). Some people are not built for stardom, full stop. But with Ullrich, it is almost certainly more complicated than that.
Ullrich is a convicted EPO user, and I am not excusing that. But I don’t know what we should say about it. By all accounts, he was a hands-down natural-born talent, so if doping didn’t exist, he probably would have been better off than any number of his closest competitors — particularly Armstrong, more on him in a moment.
It must be said, Ullrich was unrepentant about his doping, would say over the top things about how other guys should be kicked out, but then later excuse his own transgressions saying that he didn’t do anything different from anyone else. He probably started doping at the earliest stages of his pro career, like 1995, though some of the early Telekom transgressions are a bit hard to pin down. He confessed to just about nothing and refused to return his 2000 Olympic medals or relinquish any results. Like every other version of Ullrich talking about stuff, he did a terrible job with doping.
Early on in Ullrich’s career, doping was given almost carte blanche, which would account for (if not excuse) his flippant responses to the subject. But by the end it was a stain on his name. By the end Pantani had been disgraced and died, he and Basso basically kicked out of the Tour with the Puerto guys, Armstrong the unloved champion thanks to all the suspicion, especially in France. Doping riders were pushed increasingly into the shadows, reviled by proper society, an actual mafia.
I’m not saying the riders don’t deserve their share of the blame, but I will say this — they got way too much of the shame. The teams and the UCI did a lot to create the situation, but apart from Willy Voet and a few doctors, it’s the riders who got trotted out as the bad guys and who bear the shame of it all. Now, to be clear, you don’t have to feel bad for them if you don’t want. I’m just saying, shame is a factor for the Puerto guys. This leads to another topic...
Being East German
This part has as much to do with how people perceived him as with how he perceived himself, because being an Ossi, as he famously is, came with quite a lot of baggage in the late 1990s. [East and West Germans refer to themselves as Ossis and Wessis, or did for a while anyway.]
Friebe recounts how young Jan showed up in Berlin, as he graduated from Dynamo Rostock West to a bigger, better athletic program, with his Peace Race poster depicting Olaf Ludwig. By the 80s that didn’t say a lot about Jan other than that the Peace Race was continuing to function as a prestigious event and one where DDR athletes could expect to compete, but the origins of the Peace Race, told so well in Herbie Sykes’ The Race Against the Stasi, are that of a pecking order in which Russian athletes were at the top and East Germans closer to, or maybe at, the bottom. In the 1950s, when the race took off, to even be East German was a precarious, shame-filled, even violence-ridden existence, as the post-war wounds continued to fester and bits of the old Fatherland were carved up by vengence-minded neighboring countries. But the Peace Race was just that — an attempt to bring people together from around the Eastern Bloc, and foster a greater sense of unity behind the Iron Curtain. According to Sykes’ account, it worked, to the point that the DDR that Ullrich was born into was not nearly the whipping boy of a fledgeling nation anymore, and cycling-wise they caught up there too.
Fans, in turn, were quick to associate Ullrich with the East German sports machine, often for the least flattering reasons. By the time anyone knew who Ullrich was, it was several years past the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany — but it was right smack dab in the middle of the country’s reckoning with the DDR’s massive and cruel sports doping program. Former track star Brigitte Berendonk and academic-turned-anti-doping pioneer Werner Franke paired up to write an Earth-shattering expose on “State Planning Theme 14.45,” the program — titled for maximum banality — by which top athletes in the DDR were given doses of the steroid oral turinabol, often unwittingly or without consent, in order to accelerate the country’s sports-washing of its gloomy satellite dictatorship reputation. See Dr. Steven Ungerleider’s thorough reporting in Faust’s Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine, for all the awful details.
Readers in Western Europe probably have a better handle on this stuff than us Americans, but for a quick recap... The Berendonk-Franke exposé empowered numerous other victims to come forward. The reunified state then put a bunch of people associated with State Planning Theme 14.45 on trial for the harm they inflicted on athletes, resulting in the convictions in 2000 of Lothar Kipke, Mafred Höppner and Manfred Ewald. It also fed the stereotype whereby people like me could simplistically view East Germany as a soulless state which would literally destroy its youth to grab some gold medals and headlines. I watched the 1976 Olympics, where the DDR finished behind only the USSR in medal counts, in part with swimmers and track athletes whose bodies looked nothing like the people around us, or even their close competitors. By then, the steroid use was barely even a secret.
The reality, detailed painfully by Ungerleider, was far, far darker. Doping wasn’t merely abused, but done in horrible ways to children who had been spirited away from their families to sports academies, fed little blue pills they knew nothing about, and watched their bodies spiral out of control in nightmarish ways... outside of competition, where the pills worked exactly as hoped. At his trial Kipke was tagged by his prosecutor, Michael Lehner, as “the Josef Mengele of the GDR doping system,” a tremendously shocking thing to say in 2000 — but equally impossible to deny. To the East German system, the Hippocratic Oath meant just as little as it did to the Nazi doctors who practiced their evil deeds in service of glorifying the state (and who fed steroids to their soldiers for that extra killing edge). Ewald, the Olympic program chief and Minister of Sport for the DDR, was literally a Nazi — a Hitler Youth, party member, and so on. One cannot, of course, equate the DDR athletes’ experience to that of Holocaust victims, but to anyone with compassion it’s hard to avoid the parallels. This is the superheated environment in which Ullrich’s rise to greatness took place.
No surprise, then, that Ullrich was often called “robotic,” thanks to his steady, overgeared style of riding, though it was a lazy label at best. He didn’t resemble the “robotic” eastern bloc swimmers, track athletes, and so forth, from 20 years earlier — no road cyclist would. And as far as DDR sports factory doping goes, in his extensive testimony to Friebe, Ullrich’s long-time coach dating back from his Rostock days, Peter Becker, swears that Ullrich’s experience with the state-planned sports program never included doping. Logically, the story makes sense — road cycling wasn’t especially important compared to the big Olympic events, and the late 80s were nothing like the early 60s when there was no backlash against steroids to make the sports ministry bat an eye. Sure, Ullrich rode track, but steroids are kind of a mixed bag to all cyclists, especially climbers. The more sophisticated, prohibitively expensive doping products found a decade later in cycling weren’t available to anonymous East German kids. One never knows what to fully believe, of course. He was doped, eventually, when he moved to the west, into a sport where doping had reached mandatory status, and perhaps his DDR upbringing prepared him to shrug it off as no big deal. But that’s a separate matter.
To be clear, Ullrich WAS a product of the DDR sports system. He was literally in Berlin, at the Dynamo academy there, the night the wall came down, and ventured over to West Berlin in the aftermath to go shopping. He grew up in this rigid system, living in the dorms, studying communist dogma and swearing loyalty to the state. Friebe teases out some really interesting wrinkles about the cycling program though. Becker was something of a free spirit and went well beyond the image of robotic athletic training, taking his charges skiing, or jumping in lakes, ice skating, playing soccer — all sorts of cross training that you wouldn’t expect in a rigid system. He wanted them to actually have fun, Becker says, and piling on the miles had its limits. Years later, his teammate Rolf Aldag, from Münster in the West, talked about how much more natural Ullrich looked on his bike, visually, because of all the things he did besides ride his bike, whereas the Wessi cyclists just piled on miles in the hours between going to their day jobs.
Another anecdote, from Peter Sager, one of Ullrich’s earliest sports coaches, talked about how the DDR might have had this reputation for the doping regime, but mostly what it did was train athletes from an early age using sophisticated sports science. While his western counterparts were poorly coached if they were coached at all, Ullrich and his friends were being organized into programs that had them racing constantly — a huge advantage over folks in the west. On balance, Ullrich was better coached and more well-rounded from his academy days than his western counterparts — hardly some monstrous robot at all.
But there he was, in the cultural maelstrom of reunification the forward face of the new nation. Even the most confident, self-assured Easterner would have struggled to walk straight onto that stage, at that time, and defy all the stereotypes, belittling, and dehumanizing that came with the politics of that era. Ullrich was nowhere near such a person.
This part is almost comical in a sense — that Jan would eat huge amounts of food and gain tons of weight each winter, anathema to a cyclist. Friebe hears one anecdote after another about what people saw him eat (“two pints of ice cream in an hour!”). He collects numerous stories of immensely frustrated team staff urging Ullrich to curb his bad habits, only to provoke angry reactions. It can sound funny at times, but it almost certainly wasn’t.
Binge eating is a serious disorder whose underlying causes aren’t well established, but number anxiety and depression among them. I’m not qualified to say much more, but I can confidently posit that Ullrich’s eating was a form of self-sabotage that went beyond simply liking food a lot. When he won in 1997, Friebe records people as describing him as svelte, which was how he looked the previous year when he finished second. Only when he became a champion, when his entire outlook changed almost overnight (e.g., his retirement dalliances), did the weight problem surface.
The ramifications for his cycling career are kind of fascinating, in that he would fall impossibly far behind in his fitness until making good seconds before the Tour, then beat almost everyone on the planet, save for Armstrong. No doubt sports scientists would have loved to study him more closely to determine whether sudden weight loss had downstream ramifications for an endurance athlete of his stature, which seems logical enough, except that Ullrich’s talent (and the availability of EPO) masked much if not quite all of the downside. At a minimum, though, Ullrich carried a few more kilos over the years — from 67 to 69, 71, 74... it just crept up a bit, but as we all know, these marginal differences are massive across three weeks. It’s hard to say definitively, but you can make a pretty nifty-sounding case that he did in fact eat himself out of several Tour wins.
Lance Armstrong (and Marco Pantani)
For all his mindset challenges, self-sabotage, and assorted errors, only two men ever stopped Ullrich from winning the Tour — Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong. The former, Telekom just completely did not see coming (after Pantani fell six minutes behind early in the 1998 Tour and Telekom passed up chances to bury him before the mountains), while the latter pulled himself out of the cancer ward and back onto his bike, all the way to ... you know the story. Ullrich served as Armstrong’s foil, and was never quite up to the challenge the bullying American presented.
One of the true highlights of The Best There Never Was is when Friebe sits down with Armstrong and gets a thoroughly Lanceified retelling of the war stories. But there’s an incredible twist to the story in the aftermath of their battles: they became friends, even deeper than that, to the point where Armstrong flew to Germany in 2019 to check in on Ullrich, who said two years later that he was then “nearly dead, like Pantani” and credits Armstrong with helping him save himself from slow suicide. So Jan has this unlikely, but very deep and important appreciation for Lance.
Lance, though, feels something really big for Jan too. Talking to Friebe, he recounts how Ullrich came to the Team Discovery victory party in Paris at the end of the 2005 Tour, an unheard-of way for the vanquished to behold the victor. As he’s saying this, Armstrong breaks down and cries, sobbing, apparently, going deep into his own connectedness to his rival, an incomprehensible break from his alpha character. Friebe is there for this raw moment about the link between two people, both elite cycling champions, both deeply wounded in some way — by fame? by shame? by absent, unloving fathers? — and yeah, the resulting on-bike psychology could not be more different. Lance channeled his pain into becoming an unstoppable force, while Jan’s pain turned him into a jumble of contradictions and self-sabotaging behavior. But in the aftermath they discover how alike they are after all. If they end up later in life sharing an apartment together in Paris, overlooking the Champs-Élysées and just going through their daily routines, knowing that they share a bond nobody else can understand... I’m not sure that’s off the table.
You can watch them yuk it up at the 2021 Worlds with Bruyneel and Hincapie. It seems like light fun, but mere weeks later Armstrong was summoned to Cancun, Mexico to be by Ullrich’s side at a hospital where Der Jan had been taken following some sort of relapse into drugs and/or alcohol. The friendship endures, but so does the darkness from which it was born.
The point of my recapping these stories, all of which are so much more poignantly and painstakingly detailed by Friebe, is to suggest the existence of a common thread that runs through the entire Ullrich biography, some deep wound that Ullrich himself has only hinted at publicly, and has only shared to people like Armstrong and Becker (who says he knows much more but will take those secrets to his grave). Maybe the forthcoming documentary will include the revelation that explains it all — assuming the documentary is actually forthcoming. Ullrich has said as much, but everyone in Jan’s orbit would tell you not to bank on that.
The end result is that Ullrich: The Best That Never Was can’t fill in the blank any better than the other explanations out there. One source, a former DDS athlete who works with other victims named Ines Geipel, offers her theory that even athletes not subjected to the worst steroid excesses of the sports academy system nonetheless suffered from a disorienting psychological reprogramming at such an early age that can leave people hopelessly adrift as adults. Considering that at Dynamo Berlin the person in charge was Eric Mielke, an infamous Stasi officer, and children were labeled “versuchperson” aka test subjects... maybe. His chat with Geipel is a sign that Friebe has considered every possible explanation for Ullrich’s long history of instability that he can responsibly put in writing — and I am guessing a few more that he had to leave out.
One touching aspect of the book is how Friebe ultimately ends up on a quest — which he describes in greater detail on The Cycling Podcast’s June 5, 2022 edition. His quest starts to mirror the subject he is covering, as Friebe talks about struggling with anxiety over the book and its ultrasensitive subject. But there is another interesting, endearing element I don’t believe he has mentioned: how this book and its creation resembles Richard Moore’s In Search of Robert Millar, the breakthrough book that put Friebe’s dear friend and eventual podcast partner into the mainstream of cycling media.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Moore around the publication of that book in 2007 and listened to Moore talk about his personal connection to the subject and his fascination with Millar’s disappearance that drove him to uncover the mystery. Or attempt to anyway. It wasn’t until 2017 that we got our answer, that Millar had transitioned to her new identity as Philippa York. While Moore’s pursuit of the mystery could feel different in hindsight, as we all become much more aware of what transgendered people face, I took Moore’s motivations to be that of an admiring fan who simply didn’t know why his hero had disappeared. York, to her credit, managed to guard her privacy reasonably well until a later time when she decided it was safe to come out. York has been a public figure in the sport, blogging at CyclingNews and appearing on ITV’s Tour coverage.
In writing The Best There Never Was, Friebe is on a similarly difficult and sensitive quest. He tried to talk to Ullrich in 2015 and was rebuffed, although he says Ullrich did allow some of his friends to talk to Friebe for the book. From there, the book went on hiatus, as Ullrich descended to his lowest place, a cocktail of addiction and violent behavior, which then led to the German disappearing from public view for some three years as he pieced his life back together. The closest Friebe came to meeting Ullrich was in 2022 when he talked to his “quasi-guardian” Mike Baldinger, but Ullrich wasn’t quite ready to come forward. Friebe’s quest ends in a cafe in Mergingen having finally run aground, as quests sometimes do, but to a fan of both his and Moore’s collective works, I can’t help but find this connection to be a part of the larger connection they shared in their days at the Cycling Podcast.