“At age 104, after a long illness… the Tour is clinically dead. It is a broken toy, a burst soap bubble popped by careless kids, unaware that they are damaging themselves, their health and their childhood dreams as well…It’s all the more painful as we had almost begun to believe in the Tour again… in these soap-and-water cyclists who we were so ready to love.” – France Soir’s mock death notice for the Tour de France in 2007.
German cycling can finally categorise itself as entering a new era. While the past will not be forgotten, there is hope for a brighter future. This newfound optimism can be mostly chalked down to the likes of Marcel Kittel, John Degenkolb, Tony Martin and Andre Greipel.
After peaking with Jan Ullrich in 1997, the only German rider to win the Tour de France, cycling took a sharp nosedive after a series of doping scandals darkened the sport. From Festina to Cofidis, EPO to blood transfusions, cycling was rife with tainted teams and individuals. Armstrong was stripped of his 7 Tour wins, Zabel – 6-time winner of the green jersey – confessed to using EPO and Ullrich was banned for 2 years after being found guilty of doping, with his results from 2005-2006 stripped from him. By 2006, TV ratings plummeted by 43% in Germany according to Initiative Futures Worldwide. To name just a few scandals from the 2007 Tour contributing to the continued downfall of its popularity, it was revealed on stage 8 that German T-mobile rider Sinkewitz had tested positive for testosterone the month prior, while Vinokourov tested positive for a blood transfusion before the time trial on stage 13. In addition to the ongoing case of Operation Puerto, these were the final few rusted nails in the coffin. As a result, German broadcasters ARD and ZDF stopped all coverage of the Tour de France from stage 8 onwards. The Deutschland Tour was stopped after 2008 and after more dwindling viewing figures, by 2012 the country had refused to broadcast the Tour de France altogether.
“The 2007 edition [of the Tour de France] died on 24 July on the heights of Loudenvielle…Killed by Alexander Vinokourov, idolised by the media and cycling fans, but revealed to have the blood of another running in his veins on the finishing line. Damn Vinokourov! He sullied the infinite beauty of the Pyrenees, dirtied cycling a little more and further discredited the Tour de France.” – Le Figaro.
So how did cycling in Germany redeem itself, so far to the extent that Germans were willing to welcome the Tour de France starting in their country, only a few years after broadcasting had been pulled?
The answer lies with the next generation. When ARD, ZFD and many of the public gave up with the sport, the younger cyclists did not. National Championships still continued for Germany, with the likes of Knees (now at Team Sky) winning in 2010, and Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) holding off fierce competition from Degenkolb (now Trek) to take 3 wins in 2013, 2014 and 2016. Tony Martin is one of the most successful German cyclists of all time, racking up a total of 7 National Time Trial Championships as well as 4 World Time Trial Championships.
Argos-Shimano (now Team Sunweb), a Netherlands-turned-Germany registered cycling team were followed by a documentary team in 2014. The aim was to document that through the struggles of the past (their directeur sportif Rudi Kemna confessed to using EPO in 2003), they were a team that could still win clean. It can appear almost hypocritical, with Kemna present, yet the documentary goes on to show how drugs in cycling have impacted German cyclists. Marcel Kittel refuses to take legal tablets from the team doctor, despite the doctor showing them all and labelling them to the camera. John Degenkolb reveals his heartbreak that his idols from childhood had taken drugs, and addresses the issue people watching the documentary might be thinking, by telling the audience that “the problem is that I’m saying the same things these guys said ten years ago, so how can I convince people they should believe me?”. Also seen are riders getting “checked”, Degenkolb has his bloods taken before the first stage of the 2013 Tour de France.
“When I was young, there were people that I looked up to and said: [gasps] Jan Ullrich. Erik Zabel. If you’re disappointed by these people many years later… that really hurts. I can say from personal experience.” – John Degenkolb in Clean Spirit.
VeloNews stated that in 2016, Martin, Kittel, Degenkolb and Greipel went “as a delegation” to remind TV executives they had a combined achievement of 24 stage victories in the last 5 years. They succeeded. ARD began to broadcast the Tour de France again that year, and just before the 2016 Tour it was announced that the 2017 edition would start in Düsseldorf.
“It makes me really, really proud to see that this sport is now well accepted again in my home country. There was definitely a time where not so many spectators were standing next to the road. And those who were there were showing signs with EPO syringes.” – Marcel Kittel.
My friends and I landed in Düsseldorf on the 28th of June, just days before the Tour de France was due to begin. In Oberbilk, there was little decoration in comparison to the likes of Yorkshire in 2014, and I was left wondering if people in Germany really cared about the Tour de France making a “grand return”, or if the fans lining the streets would simply be arriving from a different country. However, the closer you got into the centre of Düsseldorf, the more Tour spirit you could see. Le Tour certainly felt more real after the passing by of Quick-Step and Katusha in the street next to us.
As Matilda, Gina, Kerry and I made our way closer to the Rhine, the bunting became more prominent and the roads became more colourful. Quite literally in fact, with one painted yellow for the arrival of the Tour.
The team presentation began on the 29th on June. Situating ourselves opposite the setting sun just above the Rhine, the crowds were heavily focused in front of the stage. As teams were presented to the cheering fans, they rolled down the side ramp and along the riverside past us. To our delight, Mathew Hayman (Orica Scott) stopped to give autographs and have a conversation with us, with Luke Durbridge joining him soon after, asking us if there were any good bars around. The always smiling Esteban Chaves later pulled up alongside us as we wished him good luck for the upcoming 3 weeks, and he gave us his autograph too. Safe to say, Orica Scott really are the friendliest team in the peloton – if you haven’t already gathered from their Backstage Passes. We additionally had the pleasure meeting Bernie Eisel, one of the most experienced riders in the peloton, with the lovely Taylor Phinney stopping for a conversation and a few photographs with us. It was only when we got his autograph and he was in the polka dot jersey after the second stage that we realised the paper he signed was also polka dot themed. A sign?
The decorations were not the only indication that Le Tour was in town. There was a Mythos Tour de France exhibition, with jerseys, cyclist portraits, that famous incident between Eric Walkowiak and Giuseppe Guerini and a wide selection of pictures, artworks and a running documentary. If that wasn’t enough, we were welcomed to the live recording of The Cycling Podcast with Paul Voß at the NRW-Forum in Düsseldorf.
Finally, on the 1st of July, the racing began. The publicity caravan passing through before the stage undoubtedly generated a buzz throughout the city centre as caravans threw out hats, bags and sweets while blaring music and beeping their horns. We eventually moved from under the 1km banner, closer to the end of the circuit, seeing the likes of World Champion Tony Martin, Chris Froome and stage winner (and future yellow jersey wearer) Geraint Thomas pass us by. It might have rained, causing spills that took out Valverde and Gallopin, but it didn’t dampen Team Sky’s spirits, with 4 of their riders finishing in the top 10.
Stage 2 enabled us to see all the jersey wearers roll out slowly in the neutral start, twice, before the racing started for the day. Thomas and Kiryienka (Sky) wore the yellow GC and green sprint jerseys respectively, while Küng wore white for best young rider. As the peloton left Düsseldorf, we paid a visit to the Canyon pop-up store, with the bikes of Gilbert and Quintana present.
A quick visit (well, quick for us anyway) to the new Specialized pop-up store finalized our time in Germany the day after. Greeted with free coffee on arrival, the store was heaven for bike lovers. Cancellera’s Tarmac was on show, as well as Armistead’s Amira, and we dejectedly made our way to Düsseldorf airport for our flights back home.
In my opinion, the Grand Départ signified the line between the old beliefs of German cycling (or cycling in general), and the new. While the symbolism of Tony Martin in the maillot jaune in Germany for the Tour de France would have been symbolic, having the yellow jersey on the (somewhat surprised) shoulders of Geraint Thomas as the first Welshman to wear it was also a sight to see. It was a pleasure to see Le Tour with people who love the sport and appreciate it just as equally as myself, and I was happy to experience the new acceptance of cycling in Germany in person. One thing that will stick with me was the sheer amount of cheering for the German riders during the time trial. One of the greatest moments was hearing the waves of volume signifying that Tony Martin was about to time trial past us. While cycling in Germany has had a dark past, its future is here. Cycling is changing, and with it are people’s opinions.