So long, Jan, we'll miss you

Jan Ullrich has bowed out of cycling at the age of 33. The German gave a 45 minute press conference

Jan Ullrich has bowed out of cycling at the age of 33. The German gave a 45 minute press conference
By Jeff Jones

Jan Ullrich has bowed out of cycling at the age of 33. The German gave a 45 minute press conference in Hamburg on Monday to announce his plans, but would field no questions from the media. He will now become an advisor for the Austrian Volksbank team. It's a low-key role for someone who reached superstar status in Germany, thanks to his performances on the bike.

Ullrich's retirement has been on the cards for the last few years. He's talked about it when things weren't going well - knee injuries, doping problems, and consistently being beaten by Lance in the Tour de France. He's now under investigation for doping in Germany and Switzerland following Operacion Puerto. But despite not being proven guilty, he chose to end his career as a cyclist. It's a strange decision when compared to other athletes such as Ivan Basso, who are in a similar position to Ullrich, but are continuing to race at the top level. At the press conference, Ullrich explained that he still had the fitness and offers from ProTour teams to race, but thought that it was "time to seek out new challenges."

Wolfgang Strohband, Ullrich's manager, advised him against hanging his wheels up like this. What if the investigations come to nothing? Perhaps Ullrich realised that, even if he did come back, his best years were behind him and he would struggle to win another Tour de France. His motto is "All or nothing" and after winning the Tour once, it was clear that that was his main goal each year. Why settle for less?

Unfortunately, Ullrich could never quite get there again. He finished up with an incredible run of Tour podium places but no more victories. Many pointed the finger at him, saying that he was always wasting his talent and wasn't working hard enough. To an extent, that was true. He would always struggle with his weight in the off-season, but miraculously get it down by Tour time. And at times, he and his team made some ... questionable tactical decisions.

Even if Ullrich had gotten everything right, he still had to overcome Lance Armstrong, who was arguably just as talented as his German rival. Armstrong had amazing physical capabilities. He was a better climber, generally a better time trialist, had a better team, and used better tactics.

Just as Armstrong's retirement in 2005 left a void, so too will Jan Ullrich's. The freckle-faced kid from Rostock had an enormous impact on cycling's popularity in Germany, and that has benefited the sport worldwide. He was beautiful to watch when in top form, and was an inspiration to cyclists everywhere.

OK, I'm not trying to be objective here. I was always an Ullrich fan, and he was one of the few riders that could give me goosebumps.

I first saw him winning in the 1993 Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic in Australia, shortly after he had won the amateur world championships. I was also at the top of Bronte hill, frantically typing away, when he made his attack with Alexandre Vinokourov and Andreas Klöden in the 2000 Olympic road race. I have ridden that hill many times, and the speed at which they came up it was breathtaking. Chasing him were Bartoli and Bettini, then the rest of the pack with riders like Laurent Jalabert, Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie. They all missed it. Der Jan won the day.

I rode up on the back of a motorbike through huge crowds of cheering Basque fans to Ax-3-Domaines in the 2003 Tour de France. There, Ullrich did what many thought was impossible: put time into Armstrong in a mountain top finish. The previous day, he had demoralised the American with a punishing ride in the Cap Découverte time trial. He backed that up with a second place behind Carlos Sastre in Ax-3-Domaines, and came within a hair's breadth of taking the yellow from Armstrong. But a few days later, Armstrong was back to his best on Luz-Ardiden after that memorable ride, and Ullrich was unable to make up the deficit.

During last year's Tour de Suisse, as Puerto was starting to unfold, I had the sense that we were seeing Ullrich in action for the last time. He seemed to be doing the race more than just for training. He really wanted to win it. Almost every day, he was involved in breakaways. He out-climbed and out-time trialled the rest of the field to win his last professional race. Then, just a few weeks later, it was all over on the eve of the Tour de France when he and Oscar Sevilla were prevented from starting by T-Mobile. The chance to see him and Ivan Basso (who was also excluded) battle it out in the absence of Lance did not eventuate.

What also made Ullrich interesting to watch were his weaknesses. You were never quite sure how good he was until he uncorked it. You never knew whether he would ride everyone off his wheel ... or go backwards.

He was a valuable rider for cycling and he will be missed.

For some memorable Ullrich moments, take a look at youtube.com and type in "Jan Ullrich tribute."

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