Fans fed up with Armstrong rival's alibis

Lashed by criticism at home for failing to fulfill his annual promise to beat Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich has become a love-hate object for millions of Germans taking in the Tour de France in daily television doses.

Anything less than the yellow jersey is not good enough for the German media and many cycling fans have been mocking Ullrich's remarks after each stage as tired excuses.

"In Germany there's always criticism if you don't win," Ullrich, in fourth place, told Die Welt newspaper this week. "You're criticized even for second place. It's always
exaggerated. If it works out, you're the world's greatest hero and if it doesn't they dump all the blame on my shoulders."

A national idol since becoming the first German to win the Tour in 1997 and triggering a boom in cycling in Germany,
Ullrich has since finished second to Armstrong three times.

High hopes for an elusive second title this year faded on the first stage when he finished more than a minute behind Armstrong. Critics erupted after he pointed out he had crashed through the window of a car while training the previous day.

"The Ullrich excuses bore me," said Rudi Altig, a former German champion and Tour veteran turned television analyst.

"You wait and wait while everyone says he's stronger than ever. He earns 250,000 euros a month and doesn't give anything back to the sport."

Play chess
After blaming the crash through the back window of his team car for the sub-par performance on the prologue, Ullrich explained his inability to keep up with Armstrong and other leaders on a mountain pass was due to "too much lactic acid."

On another day, he said he was "too hungry" to keep up.

He had a second crash on a descent in the ninth stage that left him with bruised ribs, which he told German television was caused by "a sudden gust of wind."

Altig ripped into Ullrich again: "How can you say you were knocked over by the wind? If you want to win you have to concentrate all the time. His body is strong enough but mentally he's not. He should quit cycling and go play chess instead."

Bjarne Riis, Ullrich's one-time teammate and now head of the CSC team, was quoted in Germany saying Ullrich's era has ended.

"Jan won't ever win again," Riis said. "He can't push himself hard enough anymore. He doesn't try anything new."

Ullrich, 31, has grown increasingly tight-lipped in his live post-race television interviews in the face of the criticism, growing especially short-tempered when asked when he planned to attack Armstrong and the riders in front of him.

"In Germany they're either sky high with cheer or so full of sorrow they want to die," Ullrich told the N-24 network.

He gained 37 seconds on Thursday on third-placed Michael Rasmussen and hopes to catch the Danish rider, one minute and 12 seconds in front of him, on Saturday's individual time trial.

But Ullrich still has plenty of backers in Germany, where millions down their tools at work to watch the race each day.

"Germans should be happy to have Ullrich, he is one of the greatest German sportsmen of the era and people should stop picking on him," Hans Holczer, head of the Gerolsteiner team, told the General-Anzeiger newspaper.

"He's got everything that we all like -- he's a human being with weaknesses like us all. I'd be happy to have him on my team."