Jan Ullrich, a sad and lonesome tale of cycling’s best there never was

A fortnight out from the start of the 2022 Tour de France this substantial-sized work is neatly timed

The postman always knocks twice in the mountains, which is a good thing, knowing every distance around here is not near and there was no chancing this through the letterbox on Wednesday morning.

This has been a long time coming too — seven years, to be exact, since British cycling journalist Daniel Friebe first announced the publication of Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was. The title is fetching and so is the cover and it straight away ranks as one of the best books about cycling I haven’t yet finished.

A fortnight out from the start of the 2022 Tour de France in Copenhagen, Friebe’s substantial-sized work is neatly timed — also coming as it does now 25 years after Ullrich became the first and last German to win the Tour, his victory margin in 1997 of nine minutes and nine seconds not surpassed since. Nor indeed was Ullrich’s own career high.

Between prologue, epilogue, the 23 chapters and 448 pages, The Best There Never Was is in suitably grand tour length and scale. Few genres of nonfiction make for more startling and fascinating reads than the professional cycling biography, self-penned or otherwise — not just all the ones penned about Lance Armstrong — and this is no exception.


Think of Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race, Thomas Dekker’s The Descent, or Racing Through The Dark, The Fall and Rise of David Millar, only what sets Ullrich’s story apart is the level and extent of sabotage and self-destruction that he piled on to his undeniably innate talent, starting with his piling on the weight in the off-season.

There is no spoiler alert necessary here: we already know the sad and lonesome ending. What also sets Friebe’s approach apart is that he talks face-to-face with most of those who affected and influenced Ullrich over the years, beginning at his home in the port city of Rostock in the grim industrial north of the former German Democratic Republic.

The exception is the subject himself: Ullrich, however, gave his blessing and encouraged all those contacted by Friebe to have their say. Most of them did, including Armstrong, who invited Friebe to his home in Austin, Texas, and describes Ullrich as his “North Star”, making clear his love and respect for his former rival. “I will not utter one negative word about him,” he says, which for Armstrong must also be something of a first and last.

The absence of Ullrich’s own voice is a strength and not a weakness; his shyness and insecurities meant he rarely had much to say for himself anyway. With that Friebe takes a step back and a closer look at the how and why Ullrich’s cycling career and then personal life unravelled as it did, into recreational drug and alcohol abuse, then police custody for assaulting a prostitute, the one comfort from his ultimate fall from grace being that he survived it.

Given this period of cycling history it naturally plays out against Ullrich’s complete and utter denial of having anything whatsoever to do with doping, nor did his Team Telekom, later T-Mobile, other than giving that sense the only crime in doping was getting caught.

Like the rest, however, he was eventually found out, fired by T-Mobile in 2006 after clear evidence emerged of his links to the Operacion Puerto scandal. He retired a year later. Still, it wasn’t until 2013 before he came clean, admitting his performance-enhancing drug habit assisted by Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, Ullrich was also named on the covered-up list of EPO positives going back to the 1998 Tour.

From the outset Friebe makes clear he’s not out to condemn or to judge Ullrich, his search more for the truth and maybe even some reconciliation, to understand why in Germany today Ullrich is still viewed with some sympathy or else pity, or how so many promising things went so horribly wrong.

Ullrich’s early years unquestionably had something to do with it, his first entry into sport the result of the old GDR talent ID programme, which placed an early expectation of its own. A drunken and then absent father instilled his insecurity although his ambition and obsession still soared, firstly when winning the World Amateur Road Race aged only 19, the same event where Armstrong won the professional title.

That would be telling in other ways — Armstrong later drew out all the worse insecurities in Ullrich thanks to his seven successive Tour wins; Ullrich never won another Tour after 1997 but made the podium seven times too, finishing runner-up five times, third in 2005, and might have won his debut Tour in 1996 if he wasn’t riding for team leader Bjarne Riis.

Definitive performance

His breakout performance in the 1997 Tour came on Stage 10, the 252km ride including five mountain peaks to the Arcalis ski resort in Andorra. Ullrich dropped all other rivals and won by more than a minute from Richard Virenque, his soon-to-be Festina notoriety, and with that became the first German to wear the maillot jaune since Klaus-Peter Thaler in the 1978.

After completing his win on the Champs-Elysees the headline in L’Equipe the next day announced him as “The Real Boss”, Le Parisien crowning him “King Ullrich”. Aged 23, he finished 1997 as German sportsperson of the year, a Der Spiegel survey naming him Germany’s greatest sportsperson ever seen, ahead of Michael Schumacher and Boris Becker. Eddy Merckx chipped in too saying one day Ullrich was likely to surpass his record of wins.

For a multitude of reasons, chiefly his own, this was the sort of pressure and expectation Ullrich found hard to handle: in the off-season after his first Tour this manifested itself in his reckless dietary habits, mocked at the time as a sort of childish sweet tooth when there was clearly a more serious eating disorder going on. Something isn’t right when a rider like Ullrich is putting a large-sized jar of Nutella into a microwave and then sipping the entire contents out of a straw.

Originally dubbed Der Kaiser for his ruling of the road, he later became known as The yo-yo given the constant bounce of his weight loss and gain. Ullrich is far from alone in his sad and lonesome demise, one difference being the part he himself plays to ensure he never was going to be his best for very long.