Doping and climbing – conclusions – Jan Ullrich

There is much more that can be written on doping and climbing. Of particular interest is the apparent disappearance of the ‘pure climber’ in the peloton, the gifted grimpeur that can blow a major race apart with specialized climbing skills. This disappearance is probably overstated, and many grimpeurs have shone in races other than the Tour de France in recent years.

The broader point is made, however, that faster average speeds on flatter stages such as in the Tour have made it difficult for pure climbers to hold on to the peloton and conserve their energy for the mountains. Whether this is a Tour phenomena, or due to doping or better training for all riders, is another issue.

In a series of posts, I’ve covered some of the implications on climbing of doping in professional cycling, including a two-part discussion of Marco Pantani (part 1 and part 2). It seems timely to take a break from this particular series and focus more on some of the positive aspects of great climbers and climbs. Still, it seems impossible to move on without making some comment on recent revelations on doping by Jan Ullrich, a constant presence in the mountains over the last decade, particularly in the Tour de France.

While Operacion Puerto largely collapsed in Spain, apparently due to an incomplete domestic legal framework to deal with sports doping, German investigators were able to use a DNA sample to positively link the blood found in the clinic raids with Jan Ullrich.

Sadly, despite the circumstantial evidence found by the Guardia Civil linking both Ullrich and mentor Rudy Pevenage to Eufemiano Fuentes’ doping ring, and now this absolute proof this it was his blood in the clinic – matching all the code names and other schedules of drug use that Fuentes kept – Ullrich continues to deny the accusations.

“That does not change the fact that I have a clean conscience,” Ullrich said on his website this month and widely reported. “In my entire career I have never cheated or used anybody, and I can’t admit to a failure that doesn’t exist. I am not afraid of any trial, any prosecuting attorney or any federation.”

A prosecution for sporting fraud in Germany and perhaps other charges seems likely, but could take months or even years to be completed, according to reports.

Ullrich seems to be taking to well-blazed trail of other alleged dopers by denying everything, despite mounting evidence implicating his guilt. One might consider this to be a fraught tactic and the result of poor legal and media advice. But perhaps with a long trial looming, protesting one’s innocence is the best course of action to take until a possible plea bargain or other deal can be made.

Still, if it is bad advice, or bad choices by Ullrich, it would not be the first time in his career.

Ullrich was often cited as the future of cycling early in his career, or name-checked by Lance Armstrong as the most talented bike rider around. But, as is well known, he struggled with training habits, injuries, and made poor personal choices, such as his conviction for ecstasy use that saw him fail to start the Tour de France in 2002 and his dismissal from the Telekom squad.

Telekom were continually frustrated with both Ullrich and Pevenage and relations in the team were reportedly poor. Pevenage took Ullrich to Team Coast in January 2003 and Ullrich also started working with Luigi Cecchini. When Team Coast collapsed, Ullrich rode for Bianchi in the 2003 Tour with an impressive performance. But some poor tactical decisions in the race, and poor equipment choices for the final time trial in the rain (as well as a failure to recon the course) may have cost him the win.

Riding against Armstrong in 2003

Back with the renamed T-Mobile in 2004 and 2005, all seemed to be patched up. Ullrich rode strongly in both years, although failed to podium in 2004. In that year, Ullrich was criticized for tiring himself on early flat stages by using – as he always did – very high gearing and for attacking too early in the mountains (a recurring Ullrich tactic, it would seem). In both 2004 and 2005, team tactics left many commentators confused, with Kloden riding largely for himself, despite his protestations otherwise, and the team chasing down Alexander Vinokourov in 2005.

Still, despite these criticisms, Ullrich had a stellar racing career, which is well known and need not be repeated here. In the mountains, except perhaps in 1997, he was less than exciting. His approach was simple: ride an individual time trial on every climb. It was often effective and many other riders could simply not escape from his steady pacemaking. (At least one could on a consistent basis: Lance Armstrong.) Ullrich followed the Indurain template to the letter: gain time in the time trials and limit loses in the mountains. It lacked colour, but it was brutally effective.

Despite the criticisms levelled against him, Ullrich was always a serious competitor and a serious contender, as his results show. One only needs to watch his performances in the Tour over the last ten years to see his pain and his suffering and his serious-minded approach to racing. And some of his riding was awe-inspiring.

Jan always knew how to suffer

What a sad footnote to an illustrious career, then. But many serious questions remain unanswered. One can only hope that the truth will be forthcoming; this writer would like to see four questions, in particular, answered in the case of Jan Ullrich.

Firstly, at what point did Ullrich start doping with Fuentes (assuming, in light of all the evidence made public so far that he was indeed part of the doping ring)? One is tempted to see the 2002 dismissal by Telekom as a pivotal event, or perhaps 2004’s failure to podium in the Tour. But perhaps Ullrich’s alleged doping was simply a decision made for the 2006 season in an attempt to secure a final Tour win?

Secondly, was there a Cecchini-Fuentes connection, which was alleged by the Operacion Puerto documentation but without detailed elaboration? With Tyler Hamilton, Ivan Basso, and Jan Ullrich – all coached by Cecchini – having all been linked to Fuentes (and Hamilton convicted of blood doping, despite protestations of innocence), there remains a curious set of linkages that has little more than circumstantial evidence to support it but a scent of serious coincidence.

Thirdly, was Ullrich doping in team Telekom in the 1990s? Last month, a former soigneur, Jef D’hondt, alleged on Belgian television that EPO had been used by Telekom riders in the 1990s and Bjarne Riis was named, although Ullrich was not.

According to the program, former Telekom team manager Walter Godefroot confirmed that he had heard of EPO use on the team but said: “We have learned enough already; let us leave the past behind and concentrate on the future.” For Riis, who has had allegations levelled at him before (see here), he responded, according to reports, by saying: “He [D’hondt] has no validation for the allegations he is making.”

It was a difficult year for Riis in 1999, with more allegations made by Danish media about his riding. In Germany, Der Spiegel ran an article about alleged doping in Telekom and team members, including Ullrich, threatened court action and secured an injunction against further stories by the paper.

The IM exchange between Frankie Andreu and Jonathan Vaughters, cited in the SCA court case against Lance Armstrong, contains an interesting nugget. While this conversation was widely cited by the authors as ‘kidding around’, it does discuss certain doping practices by some and the absence of doping by others. Vaughters suggested that, according to Kevin Livingston, who rode for Telekom in 2001, that “after 2000” Ullrich never rode with a haematocrit count of “over 42%” – conceivably his natural level. The tone of the exchange suggests that there was a change in practice towards cleaner riding by Ullrich and many others in the peloton, but perhaps it was just idle chit-chat.

A great rider in full flight

Fourthly, in the mind of this writer, there remains one final question to be answered: was Ullrich doped as a teenager in East Germany?

In 1986, at age 13, Ullrich started at the SC Dynamo sports school in Berlin. At age 15, in 1988, he was champion of the GDR, before the collapse of the country in 1989. He stayed at the school until 1992 before moving to Hamburg, which saw him win the amateur road race title in 1993, aged just 19, before a 2nd place in the Tour in 1996 then 1st in 1997, aged 23.

As doping court cases in Germany from 1998-2000 revealed, SC Dynamo was at the centre of a state-wide, state-sponsored doping program involving hundreds of athletes, many of them teenagers, right up until 1989. As detailed in Dr. Steven Ungerleider’s book Faust’s Gold, testosterone was the drug of choice for performance enhancement, leading to massive growth in muscle mass but also allowing harder training and speedier recovery. Sports including track and field, swimming, and cycling were all massively doped.

The doping of GDR female swimmers were the most high-profile cases dealt with in the courts, principally due to the serious health repercussions from the use of testosterone. The cases revealed, however, that the use of drugs and masking agents was commonplace and routine, and part of training and competing for a large number of GDR athletes. Younger athletes were told that the pills they took and the injections received were simply vitamins, and many did not actually know that they had been doped until many years later, despite their questions about physical changes that had taken place.

Drug testing in the 1980s made detection a risk, but German laboratories also prepared artificial epitestosterone to be injected so as to preserve the 6:1 ratio between testosterone and epitestosterone that had been set at the limit and for which the drug tests were looking for. (Floyd Landis’ ratio was reportedly 11:1, although it has been alleged that he had low levels of epitestosterone.) Also, to evade drug tests, other types of steroids were used, as well as strict monitoring of athletes to allow the scheduling of drug taking to evade testing at competitions.

Reports have also suggested that many of the training practices, including doping, continued following the reunification of Germany, as many GDR coaches continued in their sports roles, but without state support.

Werner Franke, long a campaigner against doping and one of the central figures in revealing the use of drugs in the GDR, has seen the previously secret files on many of the doped athletes but has not mentioned Ullrich’s name. So far, the only connection, reported by the BBC, is that Ullrich won a case defending himself against Franke’s media accusation that he had bought 35,000 euros of doping products as detailed in the Puerto files. The court reportedly upheld Ullrich’s complaint, saying Franke should keep his comments out of the media as his statement lacked solid grounds.

But the SC Dynamo connection remains an interesting one: a promising teenager enters a sports school that practices the systematic use of steroids in a coercive environment and that teenager goes on to achieve impressive cycling victories whilst being noted for his impressive physique. Daniel Coyle, in Lance Armstrong’s War, wrote that Ullrich’s legs “did not resemble cyclists’ legs so much as the sort of legs comic-book artists gave Superman.” Furthermore, “such was their tinge of unreality that other cyclists would stare at them before races” and Ullrich would keep them covered with his sweats until just before the start.

The answer to the question as to whether Ullrich doped in the early part of his career, as an amateur, may well be an emphatic ‘no’. There is no evidence pointing to his use of testosterone or similar steroids, other than his victories and his enrollment in a sports school with a tainted history. To suggest otherwise would be clutching at straws, seeking to draw a picture of long-term doping that has yet to be suggested.

In conclusion, though, Ullrich clearly has a story to tell. With his long career, spanning over ten very important years in professional cycling, Ullrich must have witnessed – or perhaps even experienced – all of the central doping trends that have swept the peloton. From his latest comments we are unlikely to hear his story just yet. But perhaps one day we will. And there might be more than just a few revelations if the right questions are asked.

Ullrich in happier times on the podium

2 thoughts on “Doping and climbing – conclusions – Jan Ullrich

  1. Great article. Very insightful. I never thought about his muscle mass as indicators. He did seem to have the biggest hamstrings in the sport.

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