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by Neal Rogers
August 15, 2018
Photography by Cor Vos
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In an email conversation with CyclingTips, Lance Armstrong described former Tour de France rival Jan Ullrich as “an important person in my life,” and wrote that he would do “anything in my power” to help the German through his recent legal and substance issues.
Ullrich has been arrested twice in the past two weeks, both times for physical assault, and both times allegedly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The 44-year-old German checked into a drug rehabilitation center over the weekend after he had first been admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He now faces charges in a Frankfurt courtroom that could include attempted manslaughter after he strangled an escort in the early hours of August 10.
Last week German newspaper Bild quoted Ullrich’s attorney Wolfgang Hoppe as saying that Armstrong was ready to fly to Europe immediately to help.
“Lance Armstrong is very interested in the fate of Jan, has kept up to date and says that the cycling community has to stick together,” Hoppe said. “But the most important thing is first that Jan wants to be helped. Then Armstrong is ready to get on a plane with a doctor and come to Europe”
Contacted by CyclingTips, Armstrong agreed to answer questions about Ullrich via email. Though he declined to answer queries about how long he’s known about Ullrich’s recent troubles, or how best he might be able to help — citing the desire to respect Ullrich’s privacy — Armstrong confirmed that he would “do anything in my power to help.”
“I will say this, I love Jan Ullrich and would do anything in my power to help,” Armstrong wrote. “He was and still is an important person in my life. He was a beast of an athlete and motivated me like none of my other rivals. Quite frankly, he’s the only one who scared me.”
Last week, following his August 3 arrest in Mallorca for entering his neighbor’s party uninvited and becoming violent, allegedly under the influence of drugs and alcohol, Ullrich opened up to Bild about his personal problems, which include a separation from his wife and children since April.
Ullrich’s neighbor, German actor and film director Til Schweiger, claimed that the 1997 Tour winner was abusing amphetamines and wasn’t sleeping, and indicated he may also have been abusing cocaine.
A recent video showed Ullrich acting erratically, at one point inhaling on four cigarettes at the same time.
“The separation from Sara and distance from my children, whom I have not seen since Easter and have barely spoken to, have had a great effect on me,” Ullrich told Bild. “I have done things as a result that I very much regret.”
Ullrich said in that interview that he was planning on checking himself into a drug rehabilitation program in Germany. However, before that happened, he was arrested again on August 10, this time for assaulting a woman at the five-star Villa Kennedy Hotel in Frankfurt. A video surfaced of Ullrich acting erratically, at one point inhaling on four cigarettes at the same time.
The only German to win the Tour de France, Ullrich was dogged by doping allegations during his career, which effectively ended on the eve of the 2006 Tour after he was implicated in the Operacion Puerto blood-doping scandal. He announced his retirement in February 2007, saying, “ I never once cheated as a cyclist.”
The fallout was severe, with German television broadcaster ARD boycotting the Tour de France first in 2007, and then again from 2012 through 2014, due to a succession of doping scandals in the sport. Longtime title sponsor Deutsche Telekom ended its commitment two years early, after 16 years in the sport. Ullrich ultimately retreated from his home in Switzerland to the Spanish island of Mallorca.
In recent years Ullrich had emerged as an ambassador for cycling brands such as including Storck bikes, Rapha, Northwave shoes, Lightweight wheels, Rotor cranks, Shimano components, and POC helmets. He traveled frequently to private training camps and other events, at ease with his role as a celebrity guest. His life wasn’t without problems, however, and there were signs of demons lurking beneath the surface — in May 2014 he injured two people in a car crash in Switzerland and was charged with drunk driving. He was handed a fine of 10,000 Swiss Francs and given a 21-month suspended prison sentence.
From left: Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, and Lance Armstrong on Mont Ventoux at the 2000 Tour de France.
According to reports, Ullrich’s recent downward spiral began some time in late 2017, and has intensified over the past few months, prompting Armstrong to react.
Responding to a question connecting Marco Pantani’s demise in 2004 from an overdose of cocaine and antidepressants, and how that may have impacted the way that Armstrong is reacting to Ullrich’s downward spiral, Armstrong said it absolutely played a role.
“As for the Pantani comparison, you’re spot on,” Armstrong wrote via email. “We’ve seen this movie before, and we’ve seen the ending.”
Armstrong, who admitted in January 2013 to doping throughout his career after receiving a lifetime ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in August 2012, pointed to the disparity in how athletes implicated in doping have been treated and received by governing bodies, anti-doping agencies, and the media as a culprit in both Pantani’s and Ullrich’s struggles.
“When Italy idolizes/admires an Ivan Basso and ‘disgraces’ Pantani, then we get what we got,” Armstrong said. “When Germany idolizes/admires an Erik Zabel or a Rolf Aldag and ‘disgraces’ Jan Ullrich, then we get what we’re getting now. And I suppose the same could be said for the comparison of George [Hincapie] and me. Thank God I’ve been surrounded by amazing friends and family.”
In June 2013, five months after Armstrong’s admission, Ullrich admitted to German magazine Focus that he had received blood-doping treatment from Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
“Almost everyone took performance-enhancing substances then,” Ullrich said at the time. “I took nothing that the others didn’t also take.”
And that, Armstrong said, is a shared component in the downward arc for both Ullrich and Pantani, winners of the Tour in 1997 and 1998 and Armstrong’s key rivals at the 2000 Tour.
In a separate message, he wrote, “Our sport has done a massive disservice to vulnerable men and in the process done major damage to the game itself.”
Armstrong said the time has come for professional cycling to have a “full and complete reconciliation” with its past, in part for the mental health of the athletes involved.
Under former president Brian Cookson, the UCI appointed the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) in 2014-2015, which Armstrong met with. Though it was critical of UCI leadership during the Armstrong era, it was also viewed as ineffective. Nearly 175 individuals were interviewed during the course of the 13-month investigation, yet no new riders were highlighted as having committed anti-doping violations, and only a small number of riders were mentioned in the report at all.
“My point is that this is really stupid and is toxic for cycling, long term,” Armstrong said. “If we, as a sport, don’t have a full and complete reconciliation with our past then there is no hope. These ‘politicians’ who run the likes of ASO, IOC, UCI, WADA, USADA, etc, don’t care about the people involved. All they care about are PR campaigns. And at the end of the day we’re talking about the lives of our sporting heroes. The stakes are high.”