We are at Deutsches Eck, ’German Corner’, in Koblenz for the team presentation of the 2018 Deutschland Tour. The broad waters of the Rhine and the Moselle, which meet here, sparkle in the warm evening sun. Cable cars, installed for the Federal Horticultural Show in 2011, gently transport pleasure-seekers down from the spectacular Ehrenbreitstein castle which sits high up on the opposite bank. Bustling cruise boats drift regally past. Truly, this is a pensioner’s paradise.
A good-natured crowd has gathered to drink some beer and see the riders arrive. Everyone is smiling and chatting. There’s a buzz in the air. And why not? This is the first edition of the Deutschland Tour in ten years. All sorts of German-speaking cycling celebrities are here, from Jens Voigt to Didi the Devil. It’s fun. It’s exciting.
The teams are presented in what appears to be reverse order of German-ness. So the last two outfits on stage are Team Sunweb (registered in Germany, but with Dutch DNA and mostly Dutch riders) followed by BORA - hansgrohe (who are echt deutsch). Immediately before the two German WorldTour outfits, and therefore given a higher billing than Team Sky, Movistar, Quick-Step Floors and all the rest, come Katusha Alpecin. Why so, when their background is Russian and they are registered as Swiss? Well, it helps that their star rider is Marcel Kittel. But more importantly their two principal sponsors (besides Katusha who are more owners than sponsors), Alpecin and Canyon, are both German.
The new event is organised by ASO, owners and organisers of the Tour de France (among many other races), who saw off competition for the contract from such sports marketing titans as IMG and Infront Sports & Media AG. Not surprisingly then, the presentation, and indeed the whole event, is brought off with consummate professionalism.
Of course, this being cycling, there is still an element of the absurd. Each team comes onto the stage to what is intended to be appropriate musical accompaniment. This is evidently easier to find for some teams than for others. So the arrival of the Israel Cycling Academy is heralded by Desmond Dekker’s ageless classic Israelites, a song which, despite its title, has nothing to do with Israel but instead laments poverty and crime in the Rastafarian community of 1960s Jamaica. Team Sky, operating under the lingering clouds of the salbutamol, jiffy bag and TUE scandals, is piped aboard by the psychedelic sounds of the Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Of course, John Lennon always strenuously denied any reference to drug use. And hardly anyone sniggers.
But the fans aren’t here for the music. They are here in Koblenz to see the stars, and they aren’t disappointed. The field is a strong one, featuring such names as Tom Dumoulin, Romain Bardet and Geraint Thomas, appearing in his first race since winning the Tour de France. But more impressive still is the reminder the presentation gives of just how many members of the modern peloton are German. There are the superstar sprinters in Kittel and André Greipel. There are well-established veterans like Christian Knees, Marcel Sieberg and Rüdiger Selig. There are exciting new prospects Pascal Ackermann, Nils Politt, Rick Zabel and Max Schachmann. And of course there are many more current German WorldTour riders who are not here: think of Tony Martin, John Degenkolb, Marcus Burghardt, Emmanuel Buchmann and Simon Geschke.
All the pieces are in place for a successful relaunch of the Deutschland Tour. There could not be a more professional or powerful organiser than ASO, and their confidence in the event is made plain in the fact they have signed a ten-year contract. German teams are thriving and have the resources to attract and retain the very best riders (notably Peter Sagan, who seems very well looked after and very happy at BORA - hansgrohe). Deep-pocketed German sponsors are arriving in numbers. There is a legion of top-quality German riders, with more coming through from the junior ranks.
And the public clearly has an appetite for the sport. Over the four days of the race fans turn out at roadside in huge numbers, just as they did for the Düsseldorf Grand Départ of the 2017 Tour de France. What is more, German cycling culture generally is strong and participation is broad. According to the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, 82 per cent of Germans use a bicycle, and the country has around 19,000 km of segregated cycle tracks alongside highways and waterways, on which it spends €98m a year. A programme to promote urban cycling by construction of ‘cycle superhighways’ is underway, with funding of €25m a year being made available.
WE’VE GOT HISTORY
But will the race really thrive? The Deutschland Tour has a long but generally discouraging history (see accompanying timeline, ‘Deutschland Tour – History’). Over the 43 years between 1955 and 1998 it was only held seven times. On the other hand, its most recent incarnation, which ran from 1999 to 2008, was a successful, high-profile event while it lasted. Does that part of its history offer any lessons for the resurrected race?
Those were great days for German cycling. There were top level German teams back then, too, including Gerolsteiner and Team Milram. But above all it was the era of the mighty Team Telekom (known as T-Mobile Team from 2004), which, with its roster of domestic stars and sponsorship from the partly state-owned Deutsche Telekom inevitably became an unofficial German national team. Equally inevitably, Germany’s Nationalmannschaft was often inspired to deliver great things at its national tour. Jens Heppner, wearing Telekom’s famous magenta jersey, won the overall title at the first race of the modern era in 1999, a feat repeated by Alexander Vinokourov in 2001. And star sprinter Erik Zabel won a remarkable thirteen stages, eleven of them for Telekom.
Nils Politt, now a member of Katusha Alpecin, remembers those days with great affection.
“I was there, just a small kid, I watched with my parents. There was the T-Mobile Team, Team Milram was later, there was a lot of big names there and they were really, really famous.”
Politt’s teammate Rick Zabel finds his father’s achievements unforgettable for other reasons.
“I remember one year Appenzeller was the sponsor of the sprint jersey, and every time you got the sprint jersey you got a… it’s a cheesemaker, so you got a big cheese. And, like, my parents don’t eat cheese but my grandparents, they love cheese. So every day my dad had the sprint jersey we had another big cheese. We were always having them in our car, to give them at the end of the race to my grandparents, and it was really like a smelly cheese, our car smelt so bad all the time.”
Of course, there was more than cheese, and more than the Deutschland Tour, on Telekom’s collective palmarès. While riding for the team, Zabel Sr. won the green jersey at the Tour de France six times, Milan–Sanremo four times and took eighteen Grand Tour stage victories. Better still, Bjarne Riis won the Tour de France for Telekom in 1996.
But it was Jan Ullrich’s Tour victory the following year which did for cycling what Boris Becker and Steffi Graf had done previously for tennis – bringing what had previously been a minority sport into the national spotlight and inspiring millions to take it up.
Perhaps it was the contrast between his extraordinary achievements – he remains the only German Tour winner and his modest, boy-next-door demeanour that made him so immensely popular. In 1997 Ullrich became the first cyclist in twenty years to be voted German Sports Personality of the Year, with Telekom also taking the team prize. His status as ‘eternal second’ – he would be runner-up at the Tour de France five times, including three times behind the despised Lance Armstrong – did his profile no harm. Nor did his courtesy when he waited for Armstrong after the American had tangled with a musette and crashed in 2003’s Tour – helping Ullrich win the Sports Personality title for a second time.
It was Ullrich’s star power more than anything else that made it possible to resuscitate the Deutschland Tour in the late 1990s. Indeed, such was the narrowness of the media’s focus around the race that it was often mockingly referred to in the press as the ‘Ullrich Tour’. This meant the race was intimately linked to his fortunes. And unfortunately, as it turned out, it wasn’t only the Appenzeller that was on the nose.
To learn more we have moved on to a Biergarten overlooking the Rhine in Bonn – capital of the pre-unification Federal Republic, home of Deutsche Telekom’s corporate headquarters and site of the finish of stage 1 of the Deutschland Tour 2018. Several members of the T-Mobile Team staff have reunited to tell the story.
Things began to unravel publicly on 30 June 2006, the day before the Grand Départ of the Tour de France in Strasbourg. Trevor Gornall, now Conquista editor, was highly excited about his first time working on the Grand Boucle.
“I came bouncing into the office first thing in the morning, like a kid at Christmas. At last, I was going to work on the Tour, as part of the world’s biggest team! I was disappointed to find everyone else really quiet and sombre-looking. I said ‘Come on everyone, cheer up! Who died? Ha ha ha!’ They just looked at me for a second and said, ‘Sit down Trevor, we have some bad news.’”
Media reports were implicating cyclists in Operación Puerto, the immense Spanish police investigation into doping in sports. Worse still, there were suggestions that Jan Ullrich, together with teammate Oscar Sevilla and coach Rudy Pevenage, had been in contact with Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the centre of the scandal. All three signed written denials, but it wasn’t enough. The team decided to withdraw the two riders from the Tour.
The news was broken at the team’s pre-race press conference. Frank Lösel, then head of cycling for T-Mobile International, the main sponsor of T-Mobile Team, shakes his head as he recalls.
“The press conference was like a funeral. The only subject was Ullrich. The other riders, who, don’t forget, still had to ride the race, weren’t even mentioned. I had heard the rumours the night before at the ASO team presentation. The riders were brought in on boats, and I remember standing on a bridge watching and thinking – well, enjoy it while you can, Frank, this might be your last Tour de France.”
Heide Sahl was managing sponsor activity on behalf of T-Mobile International. She vividly remembers the events of the morning of 30 June.
“The press conference was due to start imminently. Most of the journalists had already arrived at an exclusive golf resort near Strasbourg, some still entering late. Everyone was waiting anxiously, not only for the riders and management to appear for the regular team presentation and press conference that we organised ahead of every Tour de France, but also for the major breaking news that so far remained unpublished – exactly who was on that Fuentes list?
“I was at the entrance of the golf resort waiting for the team to arrive so I could direct them to the area reserved for the presentation and interviews.
“Olaf Ludwig, then team manager, called me. He had just received the news that the list had been published and it was confirmed that Jan and Oscar were on it.
“Olaf just said to me, ‘You need to hide the team bus for a couple of minutes so that we can get everything under control here.’ I thought, ‘Er – it’s a great big, bright pink bus.’ Not so easy to hide.
“At that exact moment, I looked up to see the bus coming towards me, so I had no time to think about any plan to hide it. The bus pulled to a halt in front of me and the door opened. I asked the driver to take it a few hundred metres beyond the entrance, where there was a little gravel track and the bus could be shielded from view by some trees.
“Olaf wanted to protect his boys a little. Buy some time. Try to work out how best to handle this whole situation as it unravelled in real time, to try and ensure they didn’t face the world’s media completely unprepared.
“As the door opened I immediately saw Oscar Sevilla was sat at the very front. He looked like a little boy who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He looked so vulnerable, sat there, feet not even reaching the floor of the bus. All I could think was – there’s a little boy who’s never needed a hug more than right now. I didn't see Jan, he was somewhere in the back of the bus.”
The riders never did get off the bus for the presentation and press conference. Deutsche Telekom’s head of communications, Christian Frommert, fronted up with Ludwig. They made a short statement and handed over to team press officer, Luuc Eisenga, to conduct some interviews, as a formal statement was hastily prepared in the background.
T-Mobile Team started that year’s Tour with only seven riders. Both Ullrich and Sevilla would be fired before the Tour was even over.
As time passed more and more came to light. In May 2007 a string of riders confessed to doping while at Team Telekom in the 1990s, including Riis, Zabel, Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm, Bert Dietz, Udo Bölts and Christian Henn. Two team doctors were fired after admitting their involvement.
This was especially bad news for the German broadcasters ARD and ZDF. They were both state-owned and ARD was even a team sponsor. This put them in a particularly difficult position: they could hardly be seen to be using taxpayer resources to promote cheating.
So ARD and ZDF issued a dramatic ultimatum to the German teams: one more positive test and we’ll pull the plug. T-Mobile Team insisted everything had now been dealt with and claimed to have introduced the most stringent anti-doping programmes in the sport.
It wasn’t enough. On 18 July, the day of stage 10, it was announced that tests carried out in June on climber Patrick Sinkewitz showed abnormal levels of testosterone. True to their word, ARD and ZDF immediately ended their coverage of 2007’s Tour.
The consequences for T-Mobile Team were cataclysmic. In November 2007 Deutsche Telekom announced they were ending their sponsorship of professional cycling with immediate effect. The team continued under manager Bob Stapleton in 2008, switching its nationality from German to American and morphing eventually in into Team HTC-Highroad – a story told in depth in Conquista issue 11.
The impact on German pro cycling more generally was similarly devastating. Gerard Lyne, then English language press officer for T-Mobile Team explains.
“It was amazing how quickly things turned sour. The World Championships were held in Stuttgart in 2007 but the atmosphere was so flat it was toxic. I remember asking Bob Stapleton whether he would be going, and he said he would love to go if it was anywhere except Germany.”
And the repercussions were felt elsewhere in the world too.
“I just could not believe what was happening,” says Trevor Gornall today. “For me this was the start of the journey, a dream job. We had huge plans to promote cycling in the UK with the ‘Cycling Insider’ programme, based on an absolute conviction that pro cycling and participation cycling were about to take off in a huge way in the UK. This was years before Team Sky, remember. But when Telekom withdrew it was all over.”
The Tour de France would return to Germany’s screens in 2008, only to be engulfed by a further torrent of doping scandals. That October the unamused mainstream broadcasters announced that in future they would show only the bare minimum required under their contract with ASO – just 30 minutes of highlights a day in 2009 and 60 minutes in 2010 and 2011, when the contract ended. It was not renewed in 2012.
With only the contractual minimum of Tour de France coverage and no live action at all being shown on free-to-air television in 2009, the writing was on the wall for the Deutschland Tour. In consequence, and with further doping scandals involving German riders – positive tests by Stefan Schumacher and Bernhard Kohl of Gerolsteiner would be made public in October 2008 – sponsors evaporated. Just hours after the broadcasters’ October announcement about their severely restricted Tour de France coverage in the forthcoming year the Deutschland Tour’s organisers declared there would be no race in 2009.
The timing of these events was especially cruel for former world champion in the individual time trial, Tony Martin. Speaking about the Deutschland Tour at this year’s Tour of Britain, he recalls, “I rode the last edition 10 years ago. I was the winner of the last stage. It was a time trial. It was one of my biggest results in my first year.”
But far from launching the careers of Martin and fellow 2008 stage-winners André Greipel, Linus Gerdemann and Gerard Ciolek, this success at the Deutschland Tour only served to mark the start of the wilderness years.
“Riding in Germany was really tough especially for a neo pro like me,” says Martin now. “When I became a pro in 2008 German cycling was really on the ground. It was the time after all these doping scandals so we lost a lot of fans, a lot of public interest and a lot of races were shut down. So it was a really bad situation for German cycling. Luckily I was in HTC, a US team. We were riding a lot outside of Germany, outside of Europe.”
Nils Politt agrees.
“We definitely had a crisis, that’s for sure, after all the scandals and the guys from the ‘90s – the TV didn’t broadcast it any more, and for sure if it is not on TV it is hard to have a fan base. I mean it was always on Eurosport, but Eurosport is not like ARD or ZDF which are the first and second television channels of Germany so we definitely had a hard time. The sponsors were leaving so we had no professional team in Germany.”
For Martin there is only one reason for the recovery of German cycling over the following years.
“The young German riders had to bring German cycling back to where it was. We had a lot of talent in Germany: guys like André Greipel, me, Gerald Ciolek, Gerdemann, and then later Marcel Kittel, Nils Politt, all these guys. Year by year we could feel that the public realised that we were doing it the right way, we were super transparent, we were doing a good job against doping, we tried to show that we are clean, that we make fair sports and that we can still win or achieve good results in races. Year by year the fans came back, the public came back, the TV came back.”
And when this enormous effort bore fruit, and the broadcasters came back to the Tour de France in 2015, the riders were ready. Six of that year’s twenty-one stages would be won by Germans. Tony Martin took the yellow jersey after winning on the cobbles of stage 4 and kept it for three days. To top it all off, André Greipel won the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées.
But this version of the story – that Team Telekom fostered, or at least tolerated, a culture of doping that ended in disgrace and catastrophe, and that it took a group of newly-emerging young riders to win back mainstream acceptance for cycling in Germany – while true, misses a crucial detail.
HTC, the US team that Tony Martin rode for (and known at different times as Team High Road, Team Columbia, Team Columbia–High Road, Team Columbia–HTC and Team HTC–Columbia) was in fact the successor of T-Mobile Team. HTC owner Bob Stapleton had replaced Olaf Ludwig as manager of T-Mobile Team after the 2006 Tour and would ultimately take full control after Deutsche Telekom withdrew in 2007, changing the nationality of the team in 2008.
HTC would go on to tremendous success in its own right, most notably with star sprinter Mark Cavendish. But it was also a means by which the best parts of Team Telekom, and therefore of German professional cycling, could be salvaged, and a place where they could survive and prosper even while the reputation of the sport in Germany was at its nadir.
This goes first and foremost for the riders, such as Martin, Greipel and Marcus Burghardt, who all rode for both Telekom and HTC and remain in the professional peloton (notably, Burghardt now rides for BORA – hansgrohe). It may also have helped the likes of John Degenkolb, who never rode for Telekom but may have found the atmosphere at HTC especially congenial at a time when life was tough for German professionals.
But other key HTC figures including team manager Rolf Aldag and directeurs sportifs Brian Holm, Allan Peiper and Tristan Hoffmann all came from T-Mobile, and all are still active today, and highly influential, at the top levels of professional cycling.
And plenty of others, including people who have contributed to this article, remain in cycling and continue to rely on what they learned at Telekom and HTC about the management, sponsorship, marketing and funding of the sport. They too will help to decide what future it has in Germany.”
A NATIONAL TOUR TO BE PROUD OF
It is perhaps the sheer number and variety of German stars which is the key difference between now and then. BORA – hansgrohe’s in-form, up-and-coming sprinter Pascal Ackermann was widely tipped to win the first stage of this year’s Deutschland Tour but came in second behind Quick-Step’s Alvaro Hodeg. Marcel Kittel abandoned the race entirely at the end of the same stage. André Greipel did not trouble the scorers. But none of that mattered in the end. Max Schachmann won the sprint for stage two from a small group including Matej Mohorič and Tom Dumoulin, and Politt powered to a first pro victory on the final stage in front of huge crowds in Stuttgart. Both Politt and Schachmann ended up on the final podium behind overall race winner, Mohorič, giving their public profiles a huge boost.
But it’s not just strength in depth: there is also no one rider who really stands out as the poster child of German pro cycling, and with whose fortunes the sport’s profile might rise and fall. Perhaps it is even to Germany’s advantage that there is no prospective Tour winner among the country’s current crop of stars (though Emu Buchmann of BORA – hansgrohe continues to show promise).
There appears to be no chance of the new version of the event becoming another ‘Ullrich Tour’, but what other lessons can be taken from the old Deutschland Tour, 1999-2008 model?
It is notable that in that era the route rarely strayed outside the south and west of the former West Germany: it visited the north only twice, and the former East Germany only ten times in its 81 stages – for comparison, it visited Austria on four occasions. This is not surprising given the south is not only the most picturesque and mountainous part of Germany but also the wealthiest. But if a national tour is to capture the imagination of its nation, especially a country like Germany which is decentralised with strong regional identities, it surely needs to spread itself around and make the most of the country’s geography and character.
Rick Zabel agrees that 2018’s route barely scratches the surface of what is possible.
“If you go to the Black Forest, for example, you can do huge climbs. Where I come from, in the Sauerland, also a hilly area, I just imagine if you had a race there it would also be super nice. Because I remember also, in the years before, it was always really in the south of Germany, they always kind of did it in the same area. And Germany is more than this one area. It would also be nice if they would visit the north-west for some sprint stages, or finish in Berlin with a time trial, something like that.”
The organisers were also often accused of arrogance and incompetence. There was nothing they could have done about the storms that affected the time trial in 1999. But it was surely a mistake to make the riders complete what was clearly a dangerous course and only then declare that the times would not count towards the general classification. Similarly, the chaotic and extremely wet prologue of the 2006 race produced a number of crashes, including one that accounted for the GC hopes of Team Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Schumacher.
They were also guilty of some questionable scheduling. In 2000 the race overlapped with the Giro d’Italia, resulting in a weakened field. Stubbornly, the organisers made the same mistake in 2001, whereupon – much to their surprise, and disastrously for the profile and profitability of the race – star attraction Jan Ullrich announced he would be going to Italy instead.
More damaging for the credibility of the race, international teams often appeared not to be taking it terribly seriously. The most notorious example came on stage two of the 2002 event, when only a minute or so separated the top six riders on GC as they headed into the Alps. The bad weather and mountainous terrain might have been expected to make for exciting, attacking racing. But when the break went the peloton simply gave up, eventually rolling in a full eleven minutes behind.
It also didn’t help that, for all his star power, Jan Ullrich rarely shone in his home country. In 1999 he crashed and abandoned on stage three. On the same stage the following year a plainly unfit Ullrich lost fifteen minutes to the leaders, to widespread derision. His trip to the Giro meant he missed the race altogether in 2001, and a knee injury kept him away in 2002. He finished fifth in 2003, seventh in 2004 and second in 2005. But he never really looked like winning.
It’s not obvious what the secret of a successful national tour is. But it probably doesn’t include high-handed organisers sending teams and riders who aren’t taking a race seriously over a route largely restricted to a single region with the media focusing on a lone underperforming rider. And even today the doping problem has not gone away completely: press reports have suggested that it was not easy to find towns willing to host a stage with the cloud of Chris Froome’s salbutamol case then still hanging over the sport.
However, ASO are unlikely blindly to repeat the mistakes of the past. True, this year’s race has only four stages, but this is not due to any lack of ambition that might render the race uninteresting to the stars. Rather, this was a deliberate ploy that has made it easier for big-name riders to commit to the race. True again, all four stages took place in the south and west. But while this is less than ideal, it plays to the race’ strongest audience and also keeps things compact, reducing transfer times, which should make the race still more attractive to teams and riders. And the scheduling of the race shortly after the Tour – easily coordinated, what with ASO being Tour organisers too – ensures that it takes place when interest in the sport is at its peak.
And there is no question of the race occurring in a vacuum, distant from the public. As ASO’s race chief Claude Rach told ARD’s Sportschau, “The people shouldn’t have to come to the race. The race should go to them.”
Accordingly, each stage host town held a ‘Fahrrad-Festival’, with events for families and children, attracting a total of 125,000 visitors. 1,000 people took their bikes onto the closed roads of Koblenz, Bonn, Stuttgart and Trier. And over 3,000 amateurs took part in two Jedermannrennen – ‘everyman-races’, which are open to everyone but also have a competitive element – held in Stuttgart on the day of the final stage. Willi Bruckbauer, founder of BORA, sponsor of Germany’s current leading WorldTour team, rode to a fine second place in the shorter of the two.
The value of such ‘framework events’ has been shown in another market for cycling that has boomed in recent years. By making themselves attractive and accessible to the public, events including the Tour of Yorkshire, the Women’s Tour, Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic and the Tour of Britain have quickly established themselves as favourites with fans and riders alike. What else can be learned from the UK’s experience?
The Tour of Britain makes for an interesting comparison, since its recent success contrasts with a historical fragility and many absences from the calendar that recall the woes of the Deutschland Tour. The British national tour returned to the calendar in 2004 and has grown year-on-year into a week-long event that has become one of the most popular in the later part of the season, attracting a very strong field and generating some very exciting racing. And this despite the British event lacking Germany’s key advantage: there was no established group of elite British road riders at the time. Organisers SweetSpot had to build instead on growing British Olympic success on the track.
Rick Zabel, for one, suggests this might be a good model for the Deutschland Tour as it develops.
“It would be nice if the Tour of Germany could do the same as the Tour of Britain. The Tour of Britain is way bigger now than the Tour of Germany. We had a good peloton already in Germany this year but I think the peloton in Britain is a little bit stronger. I think the continental teams have a higher level than in Germany.”
And there is one more warning from history. There was another German stage race, also held in the picturesque south, this one running successfully every year from 1989 to 2015. It was rated 2.HC, a level higher than the Deutschland Tour’s 2.1. It was won not only by domestic stars including Jens Voigt, Rolf Aldag, Christian Knees and Linus Gerdemann but also by such luminaries of the international peloton as Geraint Thomas (twice) and Alex Dowsett. But the Bayern Rundfahrt was cancelled in 2016 after long-time sponsor VR Banken withdrew its support. At the time, in an interview with website nordbayern.de, organiser Ewald Strohmeier described recent progress in Germany as “all very nice, but in wealthy Bavaria there isn’t a single firm able to find €300,000 to keep us alive.” There is no sign of the race returning to the calendar any time soon.
The future of pro cycling in Germany looks rosy enough if you are standing by the Rhine with a beer in your hand on a sunny summer evening while the WorldTour teams trundle up onto the stage and Didi the Devil poses for a few selfies. But there is plenty more for ASO et al to think about if they are to give this emerging superpower of the sport the national tour it deserves.
This feature first appeared in Conquista 20.