Ex-wunderkind Jan Ullrich is now resting, but not on his laurels

Somewhere in the vast crowds that welcomed the Tour de France to Germany on Monday, Jan Ullrich should have been watching — watching and, sentimentalists hoped, wondering.

What if? The German should have been thinking. Instead he was in Florida, spending the three weeks of the Tour de France there with a girlfriend. He wants to be far from the Tour now.

There are so many what-ifs dotting Ullrich's career, which has read like a log in a hospital emergency room until recently, when it began resembling a police blotter.

Amateur world road-race champion in 1993, the same year Lance Armstrong won the professional championship, Ullrich finished second in the 1996 Tour de France as a 22-year-old rider who was the last man named to his Telekom team. The next year he won the Tour and his future seemed unlimited. Wunderkind!

But it was all too soon, too fast. Ullrich proved that by starting to show up each season grossly overweight. Then he became injury-prone. Those who know him well insist that he is not the rich, spoiled East German kid he resembles.

Since his Tour victory he has scored such memorable victories as the Olympic road race championship in 2000, the world time trial championship in 1999 and 2001, and first place in the Vuelta a Espana in 1999. He has also squandered his talent by finishing second twice in the Tour to Armstrong and once to Marco Pantani.

Ullrich has become a sort of Elmer Fudd ("dwat that pesky wabbit") as his rivals outslick him. Pantani did it by wearing the right clothes for a decisive climb in cold rain in the Alps while Ullrich did not. Armstrong did it by shamming weakness and then, after a withering look back at Ullrich, storming up to victory at Alpe d'Huez last year.

The German missed the 1999 Tour after he crashed in a preliminary race and injured a knee and his head, and he is missing this Tour with another knee injury.

Now 28 years old, Ullrich raced in only the tune-up Tour of Qatar this year before his right knee began paining him. He has tried rest, limited training rides and arthoscopic surgery, but nothing has ended the pain.

On April 30, in what seems like a metaphor for his career, he left a nightclub in Friburg early in the morning and backed his Porsche 911 into a row of parked bicycles. Then he sped off.

Somebody took his license number, the police were called and he paid a fine of more than $300,000, or two and a half months' salary, in June.

That same month, while he was at a Bavarian clinic to rehabilitate his knee, German drug inspectors paid a surprise visit. His body revealed traces of amphetamine, which are banned in the sport.

"I'm stupid but not a doper," Ullrich said last week before he left for a U.S. vacation. He explained that, depressed, he had swallowed two Ecstasy pills before another night on the town.

"It's not doping," he insisted. "I've never taken prohibited substances to improve my performance."

It is not difficult to believe him. "Why would an athlete in re-education need to improve his performance?" asked Olaf Ludwig, a former racer with Ullrich's Telekom team and now its spokesman.

Rudy Pevenage, the team's directeur sportif and the man who has long shielded and guided Ullrich, had this to say: "Jan has fallen into a hole. He's gone to the bottom. Maybe it's better this way.

"He's just a little kid. What he has to do now is become a rider again or he'll stay a child the rest of his life."

Just when he will have that chance to ride again is uncertain, since Ullrich faces a suspension of six to 12 months. In addition, a court in Munich has begun an investigation of his use of an illegal drug. Perhaps Florida, far from the Tour, is the right place for him to be now.

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