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As everyone knows, no cycle race is over until the fat lady sings, but, a matter of hours into the 2005 Tour de France, some pundits were claiming that the formerly fat man known as Jan Ullrich had already sunk on Sunday morning.
The night after Ullrich's humiliation in the Tour's opening 19km prologue may have brought counsel, but it didn't shave any seconds off his 1-06 deficit from Lance Armstrong. Neither did it shed much light on the reasons for the German's horror show.
T-Mobile team manager Walter Godefroot, historically one of Ullrich's harshest critics, was predictably gloomy last night. Ullrich's new, more rofessional approach so far this year had apparently restored him to Godefroot's good books. Where in previous years there has been an air of cynical resignation about Godefroot's commentaries on Ullrich, last night the veteran team boss seemed plain stunned.
"It's very hard to accept a defeat like that in the first stage," Godefroot admitted. "Seeing Armstrong pass Jan was a terrible blow, because I would never have believed that there could have been more than 30 seconds between them."
Godefroot then reverted to type: "Unlike some optimists in our team, I wasn't convinced that Jan could beat Armstrong, but I had been careful not to say it publicly. It was just a feeling that I had, and I was saying to myself that if he finished within 30 seconds of Lance it wouldn't be a disaster. What perturbs me most is that no one knows why it went so wrong."
Even Ullrich's ever-loyal coach, Rudy Pevenage, betrayed some signs of frustration with his proteg. Pevenage said this morning that the shock of seeing Armstrong overtake him was equal to that of head-butting his team car's rear windscreen in training on Friday. But yesterday, Pevenage seemed scathing of Ullrich's heavy-artillery tactics.
"I don't know why he insists on pushing such big gears," Pevenage said of Ullrich's choice of a 55x11 maximum ratio. "They say that the wind changed direction? That's no excuse: Armstrong and the others had the same conditions. I could see straight away that he wasn't going to have a good day."
Ullrich himself shrugged off suggestions last night that, having emerged from his winter break lighter than in previous years, he became complacent this spring and has never shed his last two or three kilos of excess. "There are 10 days to go until the mountains and I'm not going to change my original plan," affirmed 'Der Kaiser'. "If I thought that I had no hope left, I would go straight home."
Ullrich may not yet be contemplating his second consecutive Tour failure, but there are those who are already posing the question of whether Ullrich can pick himself up off the canvas after yet another Armstrong knock-out. T-Mobile's signing of budding Tour star Patrik Sinkewitz from Quick Step, announced earlier this week, may be a hint that soon-to-be team manager Olaf Ludwig is already thinking about life after Ullrich. Even more ominously, T-Mobile have apparently all-but-signed Sinkewitz's Quick-Step team-mate, Michael Rogers, a rider very much in the Ullrich mould but six years younger. Rumours are also rife about T-Mobile sizing up an even bigger name and former Tour podium finisher.
Udo Bolts rode with and mentored Ullrich for several years at Telekom before Godefroot's team became T-Mobile and Bolts moved to rival outfit Gerolsteiner as a directeur sportif. Speaking to procycling before stage 1 of the Tour in Challans, this morning, Bolts' overriding sentiment was one of sympathy for his former team-mate. But this didn't stop him hazarding a few guesses at where it may all have gone wrong for Ullrich since he dominated the Tour as a 23 year old in 1997.
"I don't think that you can lose natural talent, but there have been too many ups and downs in Ullrich's form over the years," Bolts suggested. "As you get older, your body changes and can perhaps no longer cope with fluctuations in weight and condition as well as it used to. Also, Jan has lost so much time over the years training just to lose weight. Contrast this with Lance, who is always in a position to train effectively, despite what he said about being behind schedule earlier this year, which I think was just bravado...
"I like and respect my old colleagues at T-Mobile, but perhaps a couple of years ago it was time for Jan to try something different," Bolts continued. "At the time, there was a possibility that he would go to CSC. It would have been interesting to see how he got on there with Riis. I fear for his chances in this Tour because, if you look at the results of the time trial yesterday, there were eight Discovery Channel riders in the top 50 and only two from T-Mobile. That tells you something about what is likely to happen in the team time trial on Tuesday. And if Lance hadn't overtaken Jan yesterday, he would probably have lost another 12 or 15 seconds."
Just what Ullrich needed: more bad news.
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