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When you think of the quintessential German rider, it’s hard not to call to mind a muscular force of nature, a Wagnerian automaton characterised as much by his lack of weaknesses as his discernible strengths.
Exhibit A is Rudi Altig, the giant from Mannheim, whose raw athletic ability was honed on the track. A world champion between 1960 and 1962, he went to excel on the road, where his brute strength regularly put paid to the nouse of more tactical riders. Such was his power, that he allegedly even inspired fear in Jacques Anquetil. As gregario to both Felice Gimondi and Gianni Motta, he was considered the hottest of properties by fellow pros.
Others were forged in the sporting factories of the former East Germany, the likes of Uwe Raab, the combative GDR rider who won back-to-back Points jersey titles in the Vueltas of 1990 and 1991. The East was a proving ground for hard, versatile riders both up to, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989.
Erik Zabel was another born in the former East Germany, signing for Team Telekom in 1993. A rider of impressive all-round ability, he was both a proficient climber and an impressive sprinter, demolishing Raab’s green jersey successes in the Vuelta by annexing the Tour’s Points jersey for six years in a row, between 1996 and 2001. The last of these was his memorable duel with Australia’s Stuart O’Grady, whom he relieved of the green jersey on the final stage into Paris. In October 2003, Zabel won the Ruban Jaune following his victory at Paris-Tours with an average speed of 47.55 km per hour. Unusually for a modern rider, and perhaps conforming to the hoary old Teutonic stereotype, Zabel was one of the few road cyclists of recent times who raced all year, including track cycling in winter.
The late 1990s suggested the generations of promise might at last produce a German rider to finally challenge for the maillot jaune on a regular basis. Born in Rostock, again in former East Germany, Jan Ullrich turned pro in 1994, the year after he won the amateur World Road Title. Like Zabel before him, he signed for Team Telekom, becoming German National Time Trial Champion in 1995. It was on Stage 10 of the Tour the following year, 1996, that his tilt at greatness came. Dropping back to the team car to seek permission to abandon his flagging team leader, Bjarne Riis, Ullrich went on the attack, claiming the yellow jersey for the first time.
His Tour win that year should have been the herald of more to come from such a precocious talent, but the portents for the rest of his career were ominous from the beginning. In 1993, the year Ullrich won the amateur road title its professional equivalent was won by a certain American rider from Austin, Texas. The start of a parallel career that would consign Ullrich to the role of eternal second in the sport’s greatest race. He won the Vuelta in 1999, the Olympic Road Race a year later, but was doomed to end his career in ignominy.