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An interview with Rudy Pevenage, November 9, 2004
"Preparing for next season sooner"
As the route for the 2005 Tour route was unveiled, Cyclingnews' Hedwig Kröner caught up with Jan Ullrich's long-time adviser and mentor Rudy Pevenage to get an update on the latest developments concerning T-Mobile and the German wunkerkind - the first question being the parcours of the world's greatest cycling race...
Rudy Pevenage, directeur sportif for Team Telekom until the end of 2002, and Walter Godefroot, team manager of the world's leading pro cycling team, T-Mobile, used to work in close partnership for Germany's biggest cycling talent, Jan Ullrich.
But things changed after the 1997 Tour de France winner left the squad in 2002 after testing positive for amphetamines and drink driving. Pevenage decided to stand by his man, continuing to support the prodigious cyclist through perhaps the most difficult part of his career, but in doing so, the Belgian trainer became persona non grata at T-Mobile. Godefroot especially felt betrayed by Pevenage's decision, and still hasn't forgiven him today.
After learning to stand up for himself during an otherwise shady Coast saga, Ullrich made a superb comeback at the 2003 Tour de France with Bianchi and returned into the spotlight. After regaining respect from his peers, and with Bianchi's sponsorship dollars drying up, the German wunderkind was allowed back into T-Mobile.
Ullrich was even allowed to bring his friend and teammate Tobias Steinhauser as well as his physiotherapist Birgit Krohme with him - but not Pevenage, who became Ullrich's 'personal advisor'. But apart from his victory at the Tour de Suisse win, the German's season wasn't a very successful one, given T-Mobile's declared aim: another Tour victory.
Now, the whole of the cyling world wonders if this goal is ever going to be achieved - and if so, whether it will finally be next year...
"It is a very traditional route," began Pevenage. "Extremely difficult passages have been omitted like Mont Ventoux or L'Alpe d'Huez. Of course, every Tour is hard, and the climb to Courchevel is one of the major challenges in 2005. But, because there will be only one long time trial, we might see many favourites."
So does he expect it to be an 'open' Tour?
"Yes", he confirmed, "especially with the two stages in the Massif Central [Stages 18 and 19 - ed.] cut out for attacks. And especially if Lance Armstrong is not riding."
Moving on to Armstrong's main rival Jan Ullrich, who is still on an off-season holiday with his girlfriend and daughter, Pevenage's goal is to avoid his client's fitness and weight problems encountered last spring - and the years before.
Explained Pevenage, "Our goal is to begin preparing for next season sooner than last year. The groundwork in the years of '97 or '98 were very good, as well as in 2003, where it was perfect. A similar shape-up is our target now."
His contribution is to accompany Ullrich at the T-Mobile organised training camps and elsewhere, coaching and providing mental support on a personal level. However, this proved to be difficult in 2004, bearing in mind that he was tolerated by T-Mobile's management, but not admitted within the team's inner circle.
Asked if these circumstances were to improve in view of next season, Pevenage didn't think so. "The situation will be similar to this year," he said.
"Jan tried to talk to T-Mobile to have me closer to the team again, but without success. The only thing that will change is that I will be able to ride in the team car during time trials, which is important for Jan's morale. But not at the Tour," he added.
One can imagine the effect the situation has on T-Mobile's management and Walter Godefroot.
The latter was quoted in a German daily newspaper about a week ago, saying that Ullrich's stated need for Pevenage implied the team's coaching was unsatisfactorily to the rider. This continuing power struggle weighs down on everybody, and it begs the question of how much it actually influenced Ullrich's performance in 2004.
"That is very hard to evaluate," Pevenage stated, cautious with his choice of words.
"After this year's Tour de France, Jan wasn't satisfied with the way the team handled the situation, it was not how he had imagined it to be. Clearly, if everything had been flawless, Jan wouldn't have had the idea of wanting me closer to the team again - he wouldn't have said: 'Rudy, you've got to come back.'"
Spirits don't seem to be very high at T-Mobile in the light of this ongoing stuggle, whose ending is not yet in sight. Within the best team in the world - in 2004, T-Mobile topped the UCI teams ranking, the teams World Cup as well as the teams classification at the Tour de France - conditions for Jan Ullrich still don't seem to be ideal.
But then again, maybe his only real problem is simply... Lance Armstrong. After all, if it hadn't it been for the American, Ullrich might have added more Tour victories to his palmares and his critics would have nothing to complain about.
While it may not be worthwhile thinking about cycling in the past tense, another battle for the yellow jersey between the two is uncertain, as the Tour's six-time winner is unsure of his participation next year.
However, as Pevenage has said, if Armstrong decides not to compete, the race will be very different. "Without Lance Armstrong, Jan's biggest rival these past years will be missing," he said.
"It is logical that this will affect the race. Especially since this particular rival's team controlled the peloton during the last Tours. With Armstrong, the race will unfold in one particular direction because of this domination - and without him, we will see a very different style of racing, whose outcome is much more open."
Time will tell, as the next Tour de France is only eight months away.