Personal physiotherapist tends to Ullrich's knees' needs

Jan Ullrich's collapse in the two Tour de France stages in the Pyrenees surprised everybody, not least Birgit Krohme.

"He's in good shape, better than last year," Krohme said only days before the German leader of the T-Mobile team lost at least two and a half minutes on both Friday and Saturday.

Last year, he finished second in the Tour to Lance Armstrong by just 61 seconds.

Krohme should know about his shape, since she is Ullrich's personal physiotherapist, and for two to three hours each day, seven days a week most months of the year, she kneads, pummels and massages his body.

"It's not only massage," she said in an interview last week. "We do complete physical therapy."

A 32-year-old German with a doctor's degree in homeopathic medicine who studied both in Germany and the United States, Krohme denied that Ullrich had any problems now.

"No, not really," she said. "But after what he does on a bike, you have to make it global, the whole body structure."

Ullrich, the Tour winner in 1997 and five times the runner-up, had problems with his right knee for a few years, which is how he met Krohme.

In March 2001 she was working with the German national mountain biking team at a training camp in South Africa when Ullrich, also in South Africa to train, was recommended to her.

"He had an overly large bone in his knee, and the tendon was rubbing on it," she remembered.

They worked together for three weeks, interrupted by a hospital stay in Germany for the rider, then parted company, and she went to Cairo to teach physiotherapy, anatomy and sports medicine at the military university there.

In that same year, 2002, he was suspended by his Telekom team for various infractions, including the use of recreational drugs. He also had an operation on his knee.

"We had no contact for a year," Krohme said. "Then my cellphone rang, and this voice said, 'Hi, Birgit, I'm Jan. Do you remember? I want to restart my career.

"'I've had surgery on my knee, they've taken care of that bone, and I need a full-time physical therapist, and I hope you'll do it.'"

She agreed and began working with him when he joined the Coast team last year, then switched to Bianchi for the Tour. When he rejoined Telekom, now called T-Mobile, this year, she came with him as a team employee.

"I massage only Jan, but I'm available for chiropractic help to anybody in the team," she said.

Krohme also serves as Ullrich's nutritionist, but not as his dietitian. He is notoriously prone to grow far overweight during the off-season, and Krohme sounded indignant when she was asked if she was responsible for keeping him at the roughly 77 kilograms, or 170 pounds, that is his best riding weight.

"No, no, no, no," she replied. "This is not true. He has a dietitian. I'm only there during a race so that if I see there is a change, not in his weight but in his physical condition, I say, 'Focus more on this, focus more on that.'"

Surprisingly for a man who is believed to train in the off- season on Black Forest cake, Ullrich is spartan at the dinner table during the Tour, she said.

"He eats mainly the things he likes," she reported, "a lot of vegetables, salads and special stuff."

Uh oh, special stuff. Like whipped cream on his Black Forest cake?

"Never," she said. "We have a cook with us, and if Jan says, 'Tonight, spinach,' he gets spinach, and he's happy."

But Ullrich as Popeye is not what comes to mind when he shows up each spring, as he did this year, bulging in his jersey.

"If he wants to have cake Dec. 1, fine, I'll give it to him," she said. "If he wants to have it July 1, I would say, 'Jan, maybe this is not the best thing' and then I would eat it."

As part of her duties to keep him from becoming stylishly stout, she prepares the bag of food that Ullrich snatches in the feed zone of a daily stage as he whizzes past her.

"Mostly the usual food," she said. "He may want a different sports bar or different drink than the rest of the team."

Krohme learned her trade by studying physical therapy for three years in Germany after studying in Stuttgart, doing a one-year internship at a German hospital and then going to the United States.

"My focus was high-performing athletes," she said, "and where are the best athletes coming from? America."

She went first to Montana, polishing her English there, because family friends lived near Missoula and studied at the Northern Rockies Rehabilitation Center with a knee specialist.

"They do knee surgery, and 24 hours later they send you home, and your insurance doesn't have to pay so much. This for me was the strangest thing on the planet. We in Germany do the surgery and are careful not to move the patient for a week."

She went next to Manhattan and studied at Lenox Hill Hospital.

"I was not legalized, so I couldn't take exams," she said. "But they let me watch surgery on knees. That was the best that ever happened because in Germany you're not allowed to go in the operating room without big connections. So I saw anatomy, and not from a book."

Returning to Germany, she worked at the Olympic Sports Place in Stuttgart for four years with the men's national gymnastic and mountain biker teams, which led to her meeting with Ullrich.

"We'll stick together to the end of his career," she said, adding that she would accompany him to the Olympic Games next month and the bicycling world championship this autumn.

Ullrich praises her work highly.

"She's great," he said, "and great to work with. She's helped me a lot, a very fine worker."

As for her place on the T-Mobile team, Walter Godefroot, its manager, said of Krohme, "She's the first woman with us, and there are no problems even if, personally, I prefer women when they stay at home."

Wait till Krohme gets her hands on him, on or off the massage table.

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