As my buddy Stevil is wont to point out, cycling can be painfully linear and steadfastly non-creative in many of its professionalized facets. He’s not wrong either. Pro road racing is literally a game of going from point A to point B as fast as possible, harnessing power, efficiency, obeisance to team and leader, to maximal linear effect. In Jan Ullrich’s day, the methods were Draconian, and as an East German, he saw the worst of it.
Maybe you don’t remember it or didn’t even notice it at the time, but Ulrich, former foil to the hero/villain Lance Armstrong, had a big, gold earring he began wearing right around the time his path to the very top of the men’s road racing universe was blocked by the prickly Texan. Ullrich had done everything right, the product of a German system that coddled and molded him, that, we later learned, taught him to dope. He had everything he needed, including talent, to be the best of his generation.
Then, the earring. The earring was a poem, an ode to non-linearity in haiku form.
At the time, I thought it was an odd bit of style that stood out in the staid pro peloton, a plaintive German middle-finger to practicality, a hint at Ullrich’s swashbuckling potential, a statement of his supremacy on the road (on many days not in July), and a time marker, too. People don’t sport that particular look anymore (like people don’t wear all-white kit on their zebra-striped bikes with massive shades, a la Cippolini), but it is emblematic of a certain succession of glory days in our sport, before we’d emerged from the blood-doping cave, when riders still felt unstoppably fast. You can like it or dislike it, but it was a heady time at the time, if you know what I’m saying.
I’m absolutely projecting (as someone who went to a small, private religious school), but I get the sense that Jan Ullrich felt stifled by that system that always sought to control him. Remember that time he got busted with coke at a disco in Germany? Actually, all the times? I can relate. Oh, and I had that earring too. The earring is there to say, “HEY! I’m still in charge of me! Even if only in these dumb, little innocuous ways.” The earring feels as important as it is ridiculous.
To me, the earring was also a signal that said, “You’re right. We’re doping.” One if by land, two if by sea. It was a hurriedly passed note that read, “We’ve been kidnapped. Send help.”
I think we all let Jan Ullrich down. From the moment the Allies carved Berlin in two and allowed East Germany to drift into Soviet domination, the tale of Jan Ullrich’s big gold earring began to unfold. Could we have entered the war earlier? Could we have driven a harder bargain with Stalin?
But also, could we all have seen through the charade of blood doping much sooner? The more moralistic among us will vilify the riders of that era for having chosen the wrong path. They cheated. It’s clear. And maybe if you’re not from East Germany, you might have had more self-determination in this regard. I count myself among those who see that era of cheating as unavoidable, a path the sport was always going to go down (over and over), and I believe a lot of riders put in untold hours of work to arrive at the highest level, only to find the velvet rope blocking the door, then a stark choice. Dope or go home.
This calculus would have been less complicated for Ullrich, more like long division, the forces of the German sporting apparatus all channeling him into a single way forward, like a fatted calf in the delivery chute at the abattoir.
So I love the earring. To me it’s the crystallization of about seven vectors of history. I look at that Jan Ullrich, the earringed one, and I identify. “I don’t want to do this,” he thinks, “not any of it, but I have no choice,” and I nod my head and say, “I know, Jan. I don’t either.”