Jan Ullrich: "I thought everyone would love me"

“I couldn’t understand it, when the people turned against me,” says Jan Ullrich. We revisit our 2016 interview with Jan Ullrich

It begins with the end. Because of something he does. On our final day together we are in the hotel lobby in front of a huge mirror, and he suddenly takes his left hand up and covers the front of his face. Yes.

He covers it. Behind his hand, he is smiling. Then he moves his hand up over his head, and his face turns to stone. Dead. There is nothing. He looks at himself in the mirror. No expression. Then he moves his hand down in front of his face again. Behind the hand his face is still dead. And then. Swiftly, he moves his hand up over his head, and he smiles. Now he is smiling. Big smile. Four times he does this. Changes between smile and no smile.

Related – Lance Armstrong: History Man

Public Jan. Private Jan. This is for media. This is for fans. Public. Private. Media. Fans.

Finally, I think. And then he’s gone. He says goodbye and walks out the door. It is only within the last five minutes of our three days together—on and off in Sölden, Austria—that he reveals something of himself. Or something useful. Something playful.

Jakob Kristian is half angry. He didn’t get the shot of Jan clowning in front of the mirror. And the photo session didn’t go so well.

“We are fucked,” he says. “Or I am. You can do your usual bullshit. But me. I’m fucked. I didn’t get the shot. And he didn’t tell us anything. I mean. Did he? No, he didn’t. We are fucked.”

Three days earlier. August 28th

I’m in a five-star hotel lobby smoking a cigarette. I have a large beer and a large glass of water in front of me. I’m waiting for Jan Ullrich, and here he comes. He is tall. Tanned. He is lean. He looks healthy, and he is wearing a white Rapha t-shirt. I tell him all of this, and he smiles. Then he begins to speak German to me. Now I think about something I said to my editor a while back. The editor asked me if I spoke German, and I said sure. But I don’t speak German. Not really. And now I’m spending three days with Jan Ullrich, and we are doing this in German.

“Morten.”


“Jan.”

“Alles gut?”


“Yes. Listen, Jan. I don’t do interviews. Did your manager explain that to you?”

Jan looks bewildered.
“You and I will just talk. Like a conversation. Everything you say is on the record. And off the record. You will trust me to know what to do with the information.”

Jan still looks bewildered.

“You hear me. I don’t have any questions for you at all, okay?”

“Did you speak to my manager?”

“Yes. He is stuck in the Arlberg Tunnel. Says he is going home. So. It’s you and me now. And I don’t speak German.”

“You don’t speak German? But we are speaking German,” Jan says.

“That’s my beer. You want a beer?”

“Nooh, no. I’m on water. This race we are doing on Sunday. I need water to do this.”

“So what are we doing?”

“I’m having dinner with friends in 20 minutes. You want to join us?”

“Yes. I’ll stay here and smoke cigarettes. Pick me up when you are ready.”


“No problem. Are you English?”

"No.”


"No?”

"Yes.”


“Then...”


“I’m Danish.”

"But you live in Sweden?”


“That’s right.”

"And you write for Rouleur in England.”


“In London, yes. And you are German. And we are in Austria.”

"Yes,” says Jan.


“You know Rouleur, right?’ I say. “Rapha and Rouleur. I think they started out around the same time.” “Did they?”

“I don’t know. Just pick me up in 20 minutes.”

“Okay. Is that water? I’ll just drink that glass of water.”

“It’s my water.”


"It’s your water?”

"It’s my water. Go ahead.”


“Yes?”


“Go ahead.”


Small talk. It should be taxed.


Jan leaves the lobby. I stand there. The waiter is polishing a tall glass. I sit down again. You see. Basically I don’t care about Jan or anybody else. When you are 42 years old, all you should worry about are your wife and children. You worry about your wife because with 150-plus days on the road, you worry that someone else might be sleeping with her. You hope no one else is sleeping with her. But you think about it. Of course. You are a man. And as a man you look at other women and think about sleeping with them.

No?

Marriage is a strange thing. You live with a woman. You assume she loves you, but you still have to work on the marriage for her to continue to like you. When you are away for a third of the year, there are just less days for you to work with.

Tomorrow, Jan Ullrich will nod at this conclusion and tell me how he did 300 days on the road as a pro rider. But I already know the life of a pro rider. And it means that there are currently 500 men on the pro circuit, plus all the mechanics, chauffeurs, masseurs, direct- eur sportifs and whoever else is around, who should be worrying about their women. The point is this: I’ll sit down with Jan because it’s my job. And we’ll talk like a couple of men. Sure. Get to know each other. That’s the idea. But if he doesn’t say anything, I’ll just talk about my own life, and right now Jan left me for 20 minutes. So you have to listen to this. And Jan, too, if he is boring.

Please be interesting, I always think of people. Because if you are, you will have my full attention. Not only that. I will want to know more about you. Because I’m a curious person. And then you and I will have all of our questions. Because I’ll simply start asking you more about you. And you also think about other women. Yes, you do. Don’t give me any crap. Reading is a solitary thing. No one is pointing a finger in your direction while you are reading this. If you feel confused or uncomfort- able, it’s because I’m right.

I wonder if there are any female readers left by now?

e are having dinner. Very nice. Good wine. The company is wonderful, but they speak German. Of course. They are Germans. These German people are friends of Jan, and I am neither. So I’m polite. I laugh at their jokes, although it’s a little hard for me to understand. A couple of hours later I excuse myself and go back to the hotel. I order gin and tonic in an empty bar. I sit there. Sunday is race day. Jan is participating in the Ötztaler Radmarathon, a 238-kilometre amateur bike race through the Austrian and Italian Alps with 5,000 metres of climbing along the way. This race is as hard as they come, and therefore all of the 4,000 amateur riders in town have gone to bed. The bartender is also waiting for me to go to bed. He asks me if I’m a bike rider, and I say, of course, and then he asks if I’m doing the race, and I say, of course, and order another gin and tonic.

Never have I seen so many lean, sharp-looking bike riders who need a bike fit. I’ve been here for 12 hours, and they are getting on my nerves. Because super- amateurs, who sign up for races like the one on Sunday, almost live like professionals. They do. And these amateurs—more than any pro rider out there—should really be worrying about their wives. Because it is not their job. Nobody pays them to do this. And who wants to be with a man who does 15,000 kilometres a year, participating in crazy and—for them—dangerous races, travelling around Europe in compression socks, eating pasta and talking about equipment?

This afternoon a father of three asked me what I thought about his high-profile wheels, and I told him that I didn’t think about his high-profile wheels, and I excused myself, wondering how he’d steer his $10,000 bike and those wheels down a steep mountainside on Sunday if there is rain or gusts of wind. Because he is an amateur. He doesn’t have the bike skills required to attempt to reach 110 kilometres an hour (that was his goal), and I began to picture his widow, I wondered if black would suit her, and now I’m alone in this bar, and the story is going nowhere.

Tomorrow, Jan will tell me everything.

Saturday. August 29th

At ten o’clock Jan is still not here. His small group of friends from yesterday and I are outside Central Hotel. We are on our bikes and people are taking our picture. A lot of people are taking our picture. It seems odd. The main attraction is nowhere to be seen. But this is our world now. People take pictures. We all want everyone to know what we are doing.

Now comes Jan. Klonkklokk klok klakk kllok. There is something hopelessly uncool about a man walking in cycling shoes. Not even Steve McQueen could have pulled it off, and the reason a lot of very cool and elegant people in this world won’t ride a racing bike is because they look at us and think: no, I’m not doing that.

Jan comes over to shake my hand.

“You are here,” he says. “I’m here,” I respond.

“Good,” he says.

“We’ll see,” I say.

Autograph signing. Selfies. Jan is in a good mood. He makes light conversation. People look at him, as if they don’t believe it’s Jan Ullrich. Excited, yet puzzled. People rarely believe that the famous person they see is actually the famous person in front of them. Their instinct tells them that, surely, this famous person isn’t at the same location as they are. Because why would they be? Famous people live in another world. Or. Not in my world.

But this is Jan Ullrich. People gather around him. They have been told by the media for ten years now that this person is the most hated athlete in Germany. But again. Peoples’ instinct when they see a famous person, and once it registers that this famous person is indeed in front of them, is that a famous person is also just a person. And a person, famous or not, who goes through difficult times needs encouragement. So you smile at the person. You do your best to behave nicely. You want the person to get the feeling that you understand his or her situation, and therefore you offer comfort in a smile. It’s actually promising. For us. As people on this planet.

Out on the streets there is understanding and forgiveness. It is behind the television set and inside the internet people become monsters.

You are not listening. You are thinking about your wife.

We head out of Sölden. Ullrich is in front of me. He is constantly pedalling. We are doing 50-plus down the mountain, and he is constantly on the pedals. Fast. Steady as fuck. I’m tucked behind Jan Ullrich thinking

about being tucked behind Jan Ullrich. I live a better life than my readers. Anything they can come up with in terms of cycling, I do a better version of. That’s what I’m thinking. An hour later we hit the valley, turn around and begin the trip up the mountain again. Jan and I ride beside each other up the first climb. He asks me how many kilometres I do each year. “10,000,” I say, and ask him what he thinks of his Lightweight high profile tubular wheels.

I want to know if he is a human being or something else.

“Really?” he says. “10,000 is what I do. Are you in good shape? You smoke cigarettes.”

“I’m dead in two minutes. Don’t wait for me at the top.”

Then he goes to the front. The small group disap- pears up the road. I stop and smoke a cigarette. I look at the mountains. Austria is something else. I see the group up on the next hairpin. They’ll all do the race in under ten hours tomorrow. In fact, Jan will do it in eight. And including the hour he spends talking to people, doing selfies and signing autographs at the roadside food stops along the parcours, it means that he—without his stops—will equal the winner’s time. In fact, Jan Ullrich will be the fastest man on Sunday without really trying. Also. He weighs 80 kilograms. That’s roughly the combined weight of this race’s top ten. All I’m saying is that Das Jahrhundert-Talent still produces more power that any one of us out there will ever get close to.

Hashtag justforgetaboutit.

Now we are eating pasta. The hotel terrace has a great view over the mountains. Austria is really someth... Oh. I wrote that already. Jan is a clown. Or. He must sometimes feel like a clown. For the

time I spend with him, I am only out in public together with him, and the most dominant image I’m left with is that people stare at Jan Ullrich.

People stare at Jan Ullrich.

So you need a couple of faces. In fact. Two will do. Smile. No smile. At one point Jan explains that, no matter what he does, the German media is the German media. Their perception of him went from boy wonder to the most hated athlete some ten years ago. Jan brought the entire cycling industry in Germany down. Teams folded. Professional cycling disappeared both from the television and on the streets of Germany. The country no longer has a national tour. The only real pro race left is arguably Vattenfall Cyclassics, once known as HEW Cyclassics, and the last German winners before John Degenkolb in 2013 and André Greipel this year, were Germany’s most famous doping sinners—Jan Ullrich in 1997 and Erik Zabel in 2001. That’s 12 years without a home winner.

All this is Jan Ullrich’s fault.

He continues to talk about his role in the media. How the problem in this world seems to be that the media needs bad stories before good. And once they have labelled you a bad person, they have an interest in keeping you there. Because the bad image is stronger. “It’s sick,” he says. When he does his charity rides, one photographer shows up. When he crashes his car, six TV stations throw themselves at him.

“So don’t crash cars,” I say, referring to the case last year where Jan crashed at speed into three parked cars.

“Yes, well,” says Jan.

He is waiting for a verdict now. It was a serious accident. He was drunk. No one was hurt, luckily. But Jan Ullrich might be facing prison. His friend Frank believes they’ll set an example with Jan this time.

His friend Frank.

This is Frank Wörndl. A retired professional Alpine skier. World champion in 1987. Olympic silver in 1988. Germany’s top skier at the time. He, too, has lived his adult life with media exposure and, although he is no Jan Ullrich, he knows what I’m talking about.

“So I get the call from Jan,” he says, “and I asked him if he was drunk, and he says yes, and I tell him, he is an idiot!”

“Yes, well,” say Jan.

“Listen,” Frank continues. “If I go and get drunk at the bar here in Sölden, a couple of people might know me. Sure. I’m the former world champion, and we are in a skiing town. They know me. But if Jan does it, rumours will circulate and everyone in town will know. And then the media will show up.”

Jan nods.

“Max Schmeling. Franz Beckenbauer. Boris and Steffi. Michael Schumacher. And Jan Ullrich. Germany’s big six, as we say. All have had their rough times in the press over the years,” says Frank. “But Jan Ullrich is the only one they won’t forgive.”

Then I say, “Lance.”
Jan looks up.
We are in Sölden. I wrote that already. Jan Ullrich is doing the race with Frank. It’s their annual thing. This race, with the help of Frank, got Jan back on the bike, a bike he didn’t touch for four years after he got kicked out of the Tour de France and humiliated; had to leave the world of professional cycling.

They are staying at the local hotel. Top-end. Five star. But people are people. Rich or poor. If you are a bike rider or a fan, you want a piece of Ullrich’s ass. Inside the restaurant. Outside. Fans are standing in the lobby. The people at the tables next to us don’t talk. They look. No. They stare.

“They stare,” I say.


“I know,” Jan says.


“You know, Bono once explained,” I begin, “why he smoked cigarettes in public, although he doesn’t smoke cigarettes...” Jan begins to nod and finishes the anecdote for me: “So he has something to do with his hands?”

“That’s exactly right,” I say.

“Yes. I can never be myself in public. I have to be careful. But I’m a social person. I can handle it here. I always like it better when I have friends around me. Otherwise, I would not come here. There was a time where I could not sit in a restaurant with my family. But now. Now, it is not so difficult for me. In Switzerland we live a normal life. Our kids have never had any body- guards. Nothing like this. There is no pressure anymore.”

“Tell me again. Why are we here?” I ask.

Frank leans forward. Frank is not the type of man who leans forward. But he does it now. “First. Jan didn’t want to do it,” he says. “The idea was to get him back out on the bike again. He was depressed and couldn’t find his way out of the mess. But it was really for me. You see, I commentate during winter for Eurosport, and someone at the office talked about this race. The Ötztaler Radmarathon. And this guy said that he had done it in eight hours and 27 minutes.”

“That’s a good rider,” Jan says.

”Yes, yes. But what do I know?” says Frank. “And I just said, because I always talk nonsense, and also to fuck him, I said to my colleague, that surely it could be done in eight. And this guy just looked at me! But what did I know? I had never ridden a road bike in my life. I didn’t even know what the race was. Then I looked at the profile. And I knew I was screwed! I mean. I’m a dead man now.”

We stop eating pasta and begin to laugh. Frank is not so sure. He does a face. The face you do when you are an idiot and everyone including yourself finds out at the same time.

“So I called Jan, and he said no. I had been talking to Sara...”

“My wife,” says Jan.

“...trying to explain to her that Jan needed to get back on the bike. He needs sport. Tennis. Swimming. I don’t care. But now I had my chance. So I call him. Asking him to help me. I needed his help. And it was a way for him to help himself. But I get nothing. He ignores me.

Then after a couple of weeks he called me back. He had looked at the race profile. All he said was: ‘We have to start training!’”

Jan is laughing again now. It’s really a great laugh. Like bursts. Rising decibels. Almost as an explosion. In fact, you wouldn’t think it was Ullrich’s laugh. It’s not a laugh that fits a rider who always sat down climbing up a mountain. This laugh fits Virenque or Nibali better. It’s the laugh of someone going on the attack.

Frank is getting worked up: “...so we enter a small race. In South Tyrol. Five days. It’s an amateur race. But Jan being Jan...”

“You needed a cover name?” I offer.

“We needed a cover name,” says Frank. Jan nods. Frank has his full attention.

“So, I’m thinking. I need Jan to help me get power in the legs. And he wasn’t in good shape either. Basically, him and me, we need power! And Jan’s son is called Max. Then I thought: maximum power. Well. Power in German is kraft. Max Kraft!”

Now we are all on the attack. Attack!

“Of course, it didn’t work. On the start line, people kept looking at him. Everyone was going ‘Isn’t that Ullrich?’ But the name said Max Kraft. Well. By the time we reached the first feed stop, Jan had done one thousand selfies!”

“Yes,” says Jan. He pushes his plate aside. “And I felt how the people liked me. You know. Before, when I was a bike rider, I wanted everyone in Germany to like me.

I was young. Successful. I thought that everyone would love me. You think like that as a young man.

“I couldn’t understand it, when the people turned against me,” says Jan Ullrich. “The media. I thought the media was the people. They’re not.”

“Max Schmeling. Franz Beckenbauer. Boris and Steffi. Michael Schumacher. And Jan Ullrich. Germany’s big six, as we say. All have had their rough times in the press over the years,” says Frank. “But Jan Ullrich is the only one they won’t forgive.”

Then I say, “Lance.”

Jan looks up.

We are in Sölden. Jan Ullrich is doing the race with Frank. It’s their annual thing. This race, with the help of Frank, got Jan back on the bike, a bike he didn’t touch for four years after he got kicked out of the Tour de France and humiliated; had to leave the world of professional cycling.

They are staying at the local hotel. Top-end. Five star. But people are people. Rich or poor. If you are a bike rider or a fan, you want a piece of Ullrich’s ass. Inside the restaurant. Outside. Fans are standing in the lobby. The people at the tables next to us don’t talk. They look. No. They stare.

“They stare,” I say.

“I know,” Jan says.

“You know, Bono once explained,” I begin, “why he smoked cigarettes in public, although he doesn’t smoke cigarettes…” Jan begins to nod and finishes the anecdote for me: “So he has something to do with his hands?”

“That’s exactly right,” I say. 

“Yes. I can never be myself in public. I have to be careful. But I’m a social person. I can handle it here. I always like it better when I have friends around me. Otherwise, I would not come here. There was a time where I could not sit in a restaurant with my family. But now. Now, it is not so difficult for me. In Switzerland we live a normal life. Our kids have never had any bodyguards. Nothing like this. There is no pressure anymore.”

“Tell me again. Why are we here?” I ask.

Frank leans forward. Frank is not the type of man who leans forward. But he does it now. “First. Jan didn’t want to do it,” he says. “The idea was to get him back out on the bike again. He was depressed and couldn’t find his way out of the mess. But it was really for me. You see, I commentate during winter for Eurosport, and someone at the office talked about this race. The Ötztaler Radmarathon. And this guy said that he had done it in eight hours and 27 minutes.” 

“That’s a good rider,” Jan says. 

“Yes, yes. But what do I know?” says Frank. “And I just said, because I always talk nonsense, and also to fuck him, I said to my colleague, that surely it could be done in eight. And this guy just looked at me! But what did I know? I had never ridden a road bike in my life. I didn’t even know what the race was. Then I looked at the profile. And I knew I was screwed! I mean. I’m a dead man now.”

We stop eating pasta and begin to laugh. Frank is not so sure. He does a face. The face you do when you are an idiot and everyone including yourself finds out at the same time.

“So I called Jan, and he said no. I had been talking to Sara…”

“My wife,” says Jan.

“…trying to explain to her that Jan needed to get back on the bike. He needs sport. Tennis. Swimming. I don’t care. But now I had my chance. So I call him. Asking him to help me. I needed his help. And it was a way for him to help himself. But I get nothing. He ignores me. Then after a couple of weeks he called me back. He had looked at the race profile. All he said was: ‘We have to start training!’”

Jan is laughing again now. It’s really a great laugh. Like bursts. Rising decibels. Almost as an explosion. In fact, you wouldn’t think it was Ullrich’s laugh. It’s not a laugh that fits a rider who always sat down climbing up a mountain. This laugh fits Virenque or Nibali better. It’s the laugh of someone going on the attack.

Frank is getting worked up: “…so we enter a small race. In South Tyrol. Five days. It’s an amateur race. But Jan being Jan…”

“You needed a cover name?” I offer.

“We needed a cover name,” says Frank. Jan nods. Frank has his full attention.

“So, I’m thinking. I need Jan to help me get power in the legs. And he wasn’t in good shape either. Basically, him and me, we need power! And Jan’s son is called Max. Then I thought: maximum power. Well. Power in German is kraft. Max Kraft!”

Now we are all on the attack. Attack! 

“Of course, it didn’t work. On the start line, people kept looking at him. Everyone was going ‘Isn’t that Ullrich?’ But the name said Max Kraft. Well. By the time we reached the first feed stop, Jan had done one thousand selfies!”

“Yes,” says Jan. He pushes his plate aside. “And I felt how the people liked me. You know. Before, when I was a bike rider, I wanted everyone in Germany to like me. I was young. Successful. I thought that everyone would love me. You think like that as a young man. I couldn’t understand it, when the people turned against me. The media. I thought the media was the people. They’re not.

“So when I came back out on the bike after those years, and when I met all the bike riders, I could see that they liked me. There is a lot of sympathy in this sport. You don’t think so, when you read the papers. But there is.”

Then he shifts direction.

“Also. In the papers I read about Lance and his foundation. We all know Lance. He is a fighter. He has perhaps 50 per cent behind him in America. But what politician can muster more than seven per cent? Not many. Fifty per cent is a lot! He does all this charity. I do charity for kids also, but when I read the papers, it only says how stupid and angry Lance is all the time. But he’s not! Lance is. Well. He is extreme in many ways. All the stories. How his team- mates turned against him. All that. No one has turned against me. I was a different team leader. But I don’t care how you make it to the top. You do what you do. But there is no forgiveness in the media. People should always have a chance to be forgiven. We make mistakes in life. But I never read about his foundation. All the money he raises for charity each year. It’s never mentioned. All I read is how angry he is. It’s wrong. No one is like that forever.”

Last year Lance Armstrong told me that he felt he was forever the asshole. Now Jan Ullrich says that no one is an asshole forever.

I order a beer. Why not.

ullrich_rouleur-(68-of-80)

“Okay. Let’s go back,” I say. “Now it’s 2006. The Tour is about to start. And then it’s goodbye to Jan and Ivan.” Jan sits up. He looks serious. Perhaps he thinks, this is now a real interview. This is not good. I’m always afraid of automatic answers. People whose lives have been discussed and scrutinised in the media can some- times automatically talk about intimate and personal issues without offering anything. They talk about death or a divorce or sickness like it’s a trip down to the local grocery store. It’s as if they are attached to the person they are speaking through. They will tell the public what they think the public wants to hear. So they try to go deep. But they rarely do it. They just put words out there that they think will work.

It’s a trick they’re not even aware of.

“Ivan [Basso] and I. Yes. But there were others, too.

A whole bunch of us were thrown out. Telekom felt they had to make the first move. So I was pulled. There was no discussion. All the teams were under pressure. And what can I say? The world came crashing down. I was absolutely devastated. I also... I can’t go into details. The team and I made an agreement of confidentiality. So I can’t talk about it. But I can tell you this: the last time I spoke to the team was when they pulled me out. From then on they only communicated by fax. Fax. It was hard for me and my wife to deal with. I tried to call them. But I got nothing. They kept sending me these faxes. I felt completely abandoned. Also. There were a lot of changes going on. Walter Godefroot had brought me in. Then Olaf Ludwig was the boss. And then Bob Stapleton came into the picture. He wanted new people around him. There were all sorts of negotiations. My man at the team was [René] Obermann. He was head of Telekom. But he was having his own problems. He got ill and was at the hospital. So there was nobody for me to talk to.

“Truth was. I was going to try and win the Tour one more time. I felt I was on good form. Ready to give it full gas. I had done the Giro as build-up, but then talk began about Fuentes. Rumours. Speculations. I never thought the team was going to suspend me for the Tour. So I kept training. Hard. I won the Tour of Switzerland. Yes. I was ready. I was older. Wiser. My back problems were taken care of. When I came to Strasbourg, I was confident that I was as strong as ever before. And after the Tour, I’d finish my career with Tour of Germany. That was the plan. I was planning my retirement.”

“Go on.”

“You know. You climb this tree. It’s all you aim for. Right up there you see the fruit. I was climbing. Climbing. Ready to reach for the fruit. And then. Nothing. I sat in the car driving home from Strasbourg thinking: that was it. It is all over. And it was. I was right. For the next four years I sat in my house and looked out the window.”

“What happened to you? As a man.”

“The only thing that saved me was my family. In 2006 I was getting married a couple of months after the Tour. So we had that to look forward to. In the meantime the team and I split. All the sponsors pulled out. The German media was relentless. My whole image changed over- night. And I just sat there.”

Frank is smiling.

“You are smiling?” I say. Frank says Jan had his anything. It was all attorneys and talk. The atmosphere at home was at times awful. My family suffered. We all suffered. And in the end I was diagnosed as burnt-out.

“Frank is an athlete, like me. He kept saying that it was a spiral thing, and that I needed sport to get back. And I kept saying no. That I could do it on my own. But it was too much. Like I said, I repressed it. Finally I went to a clinic. I was there for two or three weeks. I talked with psychologists. And I learned that I needed to begin to train again. I realised that my head functions better on the bike. It got my spirits back. I began watching cycling on the television. With the sound up even. I began to...”

“Wait a minute. What?”

“Yes. I couldn’t listen to the broadcasts in those days. It was doping, doping, doping. So for years I watched it with the sound off. I love watching the races. I am a fan of the sport, you know. And then this project began.”

“To get going again. And to lose weight, I bet,” I suggest. “You were often too fat, Jan, when you came to the Tour. What was that about?”

“Arh. I was so disciplined all year. And my head needed a four- to six-week break every winter. So when the season ended, I wanted to live well. Meaning wine and good eating! It was my way of motivating myself for the coming season. I just needed it.”

Jan shrugs. He is 41 years old. He doesn’t give a shit about it anymore. Once he was quoted saying—this was an answer to his ever-present weight problems—that he saw a lot of lean riders in the peloton but never a Tour winner.

Feisty.

Anyway. This is nothing new. Some riders drink. Some never. Some take cocaine. Even when they are racing. Some never. The riders live like prisoners most of their career. It’s training, resting, travelling, racing, travelling, resting and training again, endlessly for years. Young men with money on their hands. Look at their watches. Their cars. Their wine cellars. They’ve got nothing to do except take care of their bodies. But what about the head? If you don’t like reading, there are Playstations, Xbox and the internet. In the old days, many riders sat and fiddled with their bikes in their living rooms, but I can’t name five pro riders today who choose that over a Twitter update.

ullrich_rouleur-(52-of-80)

Frank says: “This year I sat and watched Paris-Rou- baix with Jan. And he tells me everything. He knows everything that goes on in the race. He is really good.”

“Of course,” says Jan. “I know about racing.” “Would you consider commentating?” I ask him. “Never. I could never work in cycling. I was a pro rider. Now I do it for fun. I like to be around the fans. I have my charity races. And I’m a fan of pro cycling. I watch the races. But I have other things in my life.”

“Yeah, yeah,” says Frank. “But they are also afraid. The TV stations do not dare to take him in.”

“Bjarne Riis and Rolf Sørensen commentate for Danish television,” I say.

“This is Germany,” Frank says. “Pro cycling in this country ended with Jan. Now it’s coming back. After a decade.”

Jan shrugs. Frank goes inside. We are left alone for a moment. I sit and look at Jan. There is something calm about him. Lance Armstrong is nervous energy. You are never too sure what he’ll do next. Jan just sits there. Waiting for me to do something.

“I bet you are a religious man.”

“I believe,” he says. “If you pray, sooner or later God will listen.”

“I knew it.”
“Yes.”
“Tell me more.”
“It’s a strong motivation for me. It helps me wanting 
to be a better man. We make mistakes. Of course. That’s life. Let me put it this way: you have to try to be a good person. In order for God to listen to your prayers. That’s what I believe. So... Morten.”

“What? Yes. Oh. Yes. Of course!”

“I’ll see you tomorrow. Are you following me on the parcours?” “I don’t know. Am I? Would you like me to?” “If you do, bring some water with you. It’s going to be hot.”

“Sure. I’ll bring water. Listen, Jan...”
“Yes?”
“...Nothing.”

I leave the hotel terrace. At night I’m alone in the bar again. Jan is at a sponsor gathering. Barbecue and small talk. I turned down the invitation. What am I going to do with small talk?

The problem is this: I always expected Jan to win more. Why didn’t he win more races? Most of the time he was a big disappointment to me. Which is ridiculous. But it was just... I don’t know. Anything seemed possible with Jan Ullrich, once he emerged. It didn’t seem like an impossible adventure for him to turn up at Le Tour and win it multiple times. Also. The Hour Record. He should have nailed that too. It was frustrating. To see him out of shape like that. Basically it was frustrating to see him facing Lance. You just knew Armstrong had come more prepared. More ready. More angry. More. Just more of everything. But most of all, it was a personal thing. I wanted Jan, and not Lance, to be Le Patron. But having met them both now, I realise that is was an impossible demand to put on Jan.

Armstrong was a CEO on a bike. Jan was common labour.

Now I’m at home. I’ve just read this piece. I wrote that Jan was common labour, and I thought it was a good ending. Now I realise it isn’t. In fact, the whole piece is... Well.

I text Jan.
Morten: Listen. We need more time together.
Jan: Okay. Yes. What do you mean?
Morten: I want to visit you. At your home. We are not finished with this.
Jan: Okay. You are welcome here. Morten: See you soon.

END OF PART ONE 

To read part two, buy Rouleur issue 60 through our web-reader.

Morten Okbo is a Danish writer living in Sweden. Jakob Kristian Sørensen is a Danish photographer living in Denmark