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News feature, February 8, 2008

The dismal future of German cycling

German cycling is in its death throes and hoping desperately to be saved. When did it all start? With Jan Ullrich's downfall, assisted by the Freiburg Clinic doctors? Or Patrik Sinkewitz's positive test and subsequent confession? However it happened, the sport is suffering in all its aspects, as teams and races disappear rapidly from the scene. Cyclingnews' Susan Westemeyer looked at the problems.

The exclusion of Jan Ullrich from the 2006 Tour started a downward spiral of German cycling.
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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June 30, 2006 – The whole thing started with a news flash on German radio: Jan Ullrich thrown out of the Tour de France and suspended by T-Mobile Team for his involvement in Operación Puerto. The German had been named in the scandal from the very beginning but maintained his innocence throughout. His story dominated the German media that summer, with details of Hijo Rudicio, his alleged doping plan for the Tour and a police search of his home while on his honeymoon, all distracting from any actual racing going on. A DNA test was finally made the end of January and was followed only weeks later by his bitter announcement that he was retiring. His DNA was subsequently matched to blood bags taken from Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes' office.

One result of these problems was a new management at T-Mobile Team. Team Manager Olaf Ludwig departed involuntarily and was replaced by Bob Stapleton, a newcomer from the USA who promised a "new beginning" for a clean sport, supported by a strong anti-doping programme. The team ran into problems as early as spring 2007, as the story of team doctors' Andreas Schmid and Lothar Heinrich' participation in team doping in the 1990's slowly and painfully unfolded. It culminated in a tear-filled press conference in Bonn, Germany, the end of May, with Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag confessing to their past doping practices and T-Mobile announcing that it would – despite everything – continue its sponsorship through 2010.

The next two blows to German cycling came from outside of T-Mobile, although both involved former riders of the team that was then known as Team Telekom; Matthias Kessler, who hadn't been offered a new contract by T-Mobile when the team changed hands, had gone with Andreas Klöden to Team Astana. Kessler's positive test for testosterone shortly before the Flèche Wallonne led to a two-year suspension, announced in January.

We have been unable to come up with the missing 100,000 euro that we need.

- Niedersachsen-Rundfahrt Race Director Otto Pätzold felt the heat from sponsors and the public.

The next blow was bigger: not a positive test, but another confession. Jörg Jaksche, who had also been named in Operación Puerto and suspended by Team Tinkoff Credit Systems, decided to open up. He gave an extensive interview in which he detailed his drug usage since the beginning of his career.

The final nail in the coffin came with Patrik Sinkewitz. While he was in the hospital recovering from injuries suffered hitting a bystander after stage eight of the Tour, it was disclosed that he had tested positive for testosterone in an out-of-competition control during a team training camp. It was nearly the deathblow for not only T-Mobile Team but all of German cycling. The German public television senders threw up their hands in disgust and pulled the plug on the Tour. For a long time it was unclear as to whether sponsor T-Mobile would follow its lead.

Other scandals and positive doping tests followed – Michael Rasmussen, Cristian Moreni, Alexander Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin. Even if they were not connected to Germany, they helped to propel public opinion against the sport. Sinkewitz helped to bury things further by confessing to using blood-doping during the 2006 Tour.

The death of the smaller races

When the public is not interested, then companies aren't interested in sponsoring either teams or races. Germany boasted a number of regional stage races and one-day races, but they have been dropping like flies lately. The same refrain is sung over and over: our sponsors have left and they want nothing more to do with the "doped-up" sport of cycling.

Jörg Jaksche spoke up and revealed some details into the doping scene.
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One of the first victims was the Friedensfahrt. First held in 1948, it was called "the Tour de France of the East" and was the most important cycling race in Eastern Europe. After the Berlin Wall fell, it changed from an official amateur race to a pro race, receiving a UCI 2.2 ranking. After years of financial struggling, it didn't run in 2005 but staggered back to its feet in 2006 – for the last time.

A number of races have followed its sad example. The Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfahrt met its end in July even before the Tour started, when the provincial government cancelled its funding for the race in the coming year "due to the doping disclosures of the last few days and weeks." The organising committee bowed to the inevitable and finally abolished itself in December.

The last week of January sounded the death knell for three further races. Rund um die Hainleite, formerly a one day pro race, announced that it would become the final stage of the Under 23 Thüringen Rundfahrt.

The Niedersachsen Rundfahrt considered doing something similar in the future, when it had to cancel its 2008 edition.

"We regret this development very much," said race director Otto Pätzold. "But despite intensive work and lots of discussions with sponsors, stage start and finish towns, and political representatives the last few weeks, we have been unable to come up with the missing 100,000 euro that we need."

The newest member of this sad club is the 3-Länder Tour, also known as the Hessen Rundfahrt. Its Tour Manager resigned and only days later, the president of the Hessen cycling federation announced that the main sponsor, SparkassenVersicherung, was withdrawing and "there will therefore be no more 3-Länder Tour."

Other races are on the brink. Rund um den Henninger Turm, run every year since 1962 and sponsored by the Henninger Brewery, must look for a new sponsor before its 2009 edition.

Rund um Köln, traditionally held on the day after Easter, will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year while looking for a new primary sponsor. DEVK Versicherungen pulled out last year, saying, "The current doping confessions of former pro cyclists pave the way for a clean and fair sport. Next year seems like a good time for a new beginning for the Cologne classic."

Not only the races are losing sponsors. The first team to get the bad news was Team Wiesenhof-Felt, which had been around under various names since 2003. The Professional Continental Team boasted such riders as Steffen Wesemann, who in 2007 finished third in Paris-Roubaix, but the cycling climate was no longer the right one for the poultry company. "The current conditions and developments in professional cycling have brought us to this step," the sponsor said in a press release issued the same morning as the Zabel and Aldag press conference in May. Team owners Raphael Schweda and Jens Heppner did their best to find a new sponsor, but in October they had to throw in the towel, admitting defeat.

Matthias Kessler was suspended for testosterone misuse.
Photo ©: Andrea Hübner
(Click for larger image)

The strongest blow to German cycling came in November, when Deutsche Telekom finally pulled the plug on the team that it had sponsored since 1991. Rumours of the sponsor's pullout had floated around since the "confessional press conference" in May, and each new blow brought the inevitable closer.

The good news was that the team would continue – but no longer as a German team. Californian Team manager/owner Bob Stapleton gave the team an English name (Team High Road) and moved the team headquarters to his native state, where the team presentation will also take place. The squad is now officially registered as a USA-based team.

The other long-time German ProTour team got the bad news in September that its sponsor Gerolsteiner Brunnen would not renew its contract, which expires at the end of 2008. The sparkling water bottler had given the team ten years, but finally decided to stop. The company emphasised that its decision was based solely on marketing issues and not on doping, but whatever the reasons, the fact remains that another German team is in trouble.

Team Manager Hans-Michael Holczer continues to search, rather desperately, for a new sponsor. He is not helped by the escapades of one of his team captains, Stefan Schumacher. The rider made the headlines after the Worlds repeatedly for doping allegations as well as driving under the influence. (Also read Stefan Schumacher's "up-and-down" career)

The remaining German ProTour team is the newest. Team Milram is in its third year, but became a German team only at the beginning of this year. Former team manager and ProTour license holder Gianluigi Stanga ran into problems when Jaksche said that the Italian introduced him to doping as a young rider, charges which Stanga denied. The die was cast, though, and over the summer it became clear what would happen. The end of August it was finally made clear that the sponsor would buy Stanga out and turn the team into a German one.

The new team manager of this very German team is Gerry van Gerwen, who is – of all things – not German, but Dutch. However, the team has new headquarters in Dortmund, Germany, and will concentrate on German races. There are more Germans on the team than any other nationality, and four of the seven new riders this year are German.

Milram has something in common with High Road and Gerolsteiner on this point – the emphasis on young German riders. High Road has not only sprinters Gerald Ciolek and Andre Greipel, who dominated the recent Tour Down Under, but also Marcus Burghardt, who won Gent-Wevelgem, and 2007 Tour de France stage winner Linus Gerdemann. The 25 year-old has since then often been considered the spokesman for the "new generation."

The doping scandals in other countries had less of an impact. Ivan Basso's confession has not made much of an impact in Italy. Even the scandal around Belgian super star Johan Museeuw left many Belgians just shrug their shoulders and say that cycling is still a great sport. So what is so different in Germany? It has always been less of a cycling nation than most of its neighbouring countries. Jan Ullrich was the one who changed it all with his Tour win in 1997. He caused a "Boris Becker" effect for cycling. For many, the doping scandals are just too much to handle in a sport that was never as popular as football.

But will German cycling survive? The number of spectators at the Deutschland Tour is still mind-boggling. Will there still be enough public support this year to save the country's cycling scene? Perhaps if the young riders are successful enough – and stay clean – then the sponsors may come back, and with them the smaller stage races will be resurrected.

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