“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.”
The following is an extract from Rouleur 59, published Winter 2015. Writer Morten Okbo and photographer Jakob Kristian Sørensen meet Jan Ullrich and his friend Frank Wörndl, a former professional skier, in Sölden, Austria, ahead of their participation in the 238km Ötztaler Radmarathon.
“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.”