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By Sebastian Moll, Special to VeloNews
In his interview with L’Equipe at the end of last year, Walter Godefroot acknowleged that he “had been forced to think commercially” in holding onto Jan Ullrich as a captain, even though Andreas Klöden was clearly the stronger man. Ullrich is the marketing front of the T-Mobile corporation, the most popular German cyclist ever. So despite the fact that Klöden was second in last year’s Tour and that Alexandre Vinokourov was having a superb spring campaign, Ullrich has been relentlessly sold to the German public as Lance Armstrong’s main challenger and the undisputed number one at T-Mobile.
It seems that even Ullrich himself believed that rhetoric. In an interview with a major German paper on Saturday he was pontificating about the great rivalry between himself and Armstrong, about how he and Armstrong have shaped each others’ careers and lives, and about how he wanted to make use of the last chance to beat the American.
On Saturday afternoon, however, reality hit. Fifteen kilometers into the 19km time trial, Armstrong whipped past the German, making him look like an old man more than a Tour contender. In the first 20 minutes of the Tour, Ullrich has lost more than one minute – seven seconds more than he lost in the entire Tour in 2003.
What’s more, the T-Mobile hierarchy seems to be running quite counter to what the marketing experts in the corporate headquarters in Bonn would like. Vino was 15 seconds faster than Ullrich, although the Kazakh is a far better climber than he is a time trialist.
Ullrich and his entourage appeared flabbergasted as to just what happened in those 20 short minutes by the Atlantic seaboard. Rudy Pevenage, who according to Godefroot is the only man who really knows what’s up with Ullrich, said he had no explanation.
“This is a huge disappointment,” he conceded. “The crash yesterday during the training doesn’t account for this.”
Ullrich himself was similarly at a loss as to just what had happened in Formentine.
“I went all out and I didn’t feel bad at all. Quite frankly, I am pretty demoralized now.” Ullrich agreed with Pevenage that the crash had nothing to do with his performance, saying, “It didn’t impede me at all.”
Part of the problem may have been that, like last year, Ullrich didn’t take the opening stage seriously enough. In an interview on Saturday he said that after last year, when he lost 15 seconds in Liège, he understood the importance of a good start. But he added that he would not focus on the first time trial.
“The Tour will get decided in the mountains. If I had the choice, I want to be at 100 percent in the mountains and only at 98 percent in the first time trial.”
After the time trial, however, Ullrich’s form in the mountains may not be relevant any more, except as a helper for Vinokourov. Only last week, Ullrich himself had conceded that it has never been possible to make up 45 seconds or more on Armstrong. According to this logic, for Ullrich the Tour is already ver, not even half an hour into the 120-hour-long race.
The same can be said about last year’s runner-up, Andreas Klöden, who was “deeply disappointed” to finish in 51st place, more than two minutes down on stage winner David Zabriskie.
T-Mobile, conceived as a three-headed monster, appears to be a quite conventional squad this year with a clear captain. To many experts this does not come as a surprise. Bjarne Riis had said only yesterday that he expects much more out of Vinkourov than out of Ullrich. And there are few people that know Ullrich as well as Riis does. Not only was he the midwife of Ullrich’s career, but he is also very close to Ullrich’s personal trainer, Luigi Cecchini. Evidently, the Tuscan miracle doctor was not able to do much good anymore on a formerly great champion, whose best days may be over.