Ullrich may be best remembered these days as the guy who kept finishing second, usually to Lance Armstrong, on the Tour de France. Born in East Germany, and coming of age as the Wall fell, Ullrich appeared destined to become the dominant force in cycling with his victory in the 1997 Tour de France. However, despite other victories (including the Olympics), he would ultimately never reach the predicted levels of greatness that his early talent suggested.
Together with a sense of unfulfilled potential, the other shadow that dominates Ullrich’s legacy is, of course, doping. Ullrich was caught up in the Operation Puerto scandal in 2006 which made it crystal clear he was a long time doper during cycling’s EPO era. Friebe however has sought to write a ‘non-judgmental’ biography which doesn’t shy away from the truth of doping, or other undesirable aspects of Ullrich’s character, but seeks to understand Ullrich as an athlete and a person beyond the caricature of doper.
In charting Ullrich’s early years, the book provides a fascinating insight into that turbulent time in East Germany for the generation who came of age as the Berlin Wall fell and struggled with being somehow neither fully East nor West German. It puts his early success and the immensity of his fame in the context of Ullrich being among the first sporting heroes of a newly unified Germany and the rare success story from the East. One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me was the insight into Ullrich’s status in Germany and the huge impact he had on cycling there.
Ullrich’s career is presented as a continuous struggle against his greatest opponent – not Lance, but his own willpower and discipline. Ullrich was prone to self-sabotage most notably by over-eating during the off-season and putting on too much weight. While his palmarès would be impressive for any cyclist, his career is seen more as a case of what might have been given just how difficult he often made things for himself. The book also delves deeply into the structures around Ullrich at Deutsche Telecom in particular and his various relationships both personal and professional.
While, the emergence of evidence that Ullrich doped brought his career to a premature end, Ullrich may very well have quit around that time had he been allowed to do so on his own terms. His failure to follow other cyclists’ lead and admit his doping made it much harder for the cycling community and German public to forgive him leading to his long-term ostracization from the sport. While at first he seemed able to move on with his life, Ullrich ultimately descended into alcoholism and possibly other addictions, losing his marriage and leaving him continuing to grapple with demons which also affected many of his one-time rivals.
This is a comprehensive, gripping biography of a fascinating athlete. Ullrich is presented as a man of immense talent but lacking some intangible qualities required to fully exploit his gifts and also to be at peace with himself long term. At times naïve, childish and incapable of managing his own life, Ullrich could also very much be his own man, making his own career choices and more than willing to ignore coaches. We are left grappling with the strange contradiction of a man who took PED to ‘level the playing field’ with his peers, yet lacked the discipline needed to fully exploit the benefits of the drugs he risked his career to take.
Much of Ullrich’s inner life is, of course, unknowable. However, Friebe has gotten as close as possible to presenting a comprehensive portrait of an athlete and a man who, despite his flaws, has always been compelling and strangely likeable. The volume of research and interviews that have gone into the book is remarkable and is reflected in the quality of the book.
The Best There Never Was is an exceptionally good biography and a very enjoyable read for any cycling fan.