It’s July 1998 and the riders in the Tour de France have endured an epic journey through the Alps on the way to Morzine. The defending Tour champion, Jan Ullrich, as endured a torrid day, constantly being attacked by the Italian climbing phenomenon, Marco Pantani, and with a less than sufficient buildup, the cracks are starting to show. As he crosses the finish line, the young German is consoled by his friend and mentor, the veteran rider Udo Boelts, who has stayed by his side throughout the day, nursing the 1997 champion in his time of need.
Fast forward to 2011, and the evergreen Boelts is leading the masters category in the ABSA Cape Epic, dubbed by many as the “Tour de France of mountain biking.” Along with his JUWI teammate Carsten Bresser, the German pair are just outside the top ten riders overall in a field boasting the cream of international mountain bikers.
Boelts has certainly “been around the block” so to speak, with stories about his toughness and athleticism abound. Some South African riders recall Udo’s legendary “hardness training” in the 1990s, which involved sitting in a sauna with three teammates aiming to stay in there until they passed out – somebody would stand outside ensuring nobody died! Boelts held the record of something like forty four minutes for this weekly competition!
We were fortunate to connect with the German legend after the time trial stage in Worcester and find out that he is as passionate as ever about endurance sports after a pro career spanning nearly two decades.
CRANK: Udo, after such a long career in professional road cycling what motivates you after all these years?
Udo Boelts: Well, I find that I cannot live without sports. Even after I completed my professional career, I still found I had the yearning to explore my physical boundaries in endurance sports be it cycling, running, mountain biking etc. Even during my pro career, I was interested in other endurance spots.
CRANK: Which leads to my next question: you participated in the 2000 Hawaii Ironman while still a pro cyclist. How on earth did you manage to fit that into your road racing schedule?
UB: (Laughs) That is quite a story, with not a small amount of persuasion on my part to make it happen.
I am friends with Lothar Leder , one of Germany’s finest triathletes and the first man to break eight hours in an Ironman. I had always been interested in triathlon and Lothar helped me with my swimming during the off season. After much haggling, I managed to secure an entry into that year’s Hawaii Ironman which is held every October – obviously this would be a slight conflict with the cycling season.
During the 2000 Tour de France, I mentioned my intent to my sports director who said OK but as long as it didn’t interfere with the road season. This left me two weeks to prepare when in fact I needed at least six weeks. The director explained to me that this was not his problem! I did five swims and ten runs in total before Hawaii. Of course, the sudden running training led to shin splints, which I went to get treated five days before Hawaii – the doctor advised me to stop running but this was not an option.
My goal was to finish respectably – start slow in the swim, conserve the power on the bike and complete the run without walking, which I managed to do in a shade over ten hours and a daylight finisher. This was important to me.
It was a great experience but took me a month to recover – not something I would attempt again although I still participate in some shorter triathlons annually, organised by Lothar (Leder). Maintaining an aerodynamic position for 180 km and running a marathon directly afterward was the most difficult thing for me to get used to.
CRANK: What is Lothar up to these days?
UB: Lothar is still in good shape and runs a chain of running shops in central Frankfurt in addition to being a personal trainer. He still competes in triathlon at a high level in Germany.
CRANK: After the pain of the marathon leg, it is quite ironic that you are now an accomplished runner.
UB: Yes, I’ve participated in several marathons and uphill running races, with a marathon best of 2:49. Carsten (Bresser) and belong to the same running club in Germany – he is much faster though, with a 2:24 marathon PB. (Side note: Carsten Bresser is a former professional mountain biker who represented Germany in the 2000 Sydney Olympics).
Uphill running or vertical running is a sport of it’s own in Europe – I participate in several of these races every year.
I would say that seventy percent of my training today is running, often up to 120 km per week when preparing for a marathon, like the New York marathon last year.
CRANK: You are currently dominating the masters category in this year’s Epic, how was your preparation?
UB: Well before we even arrived in South Africa, we were billed as the master’s favourites so there was pressure!
Compared to the SA riders, we were definitely unprepared with the weather in Europe making training difficult. My longest ride was four hours in the German winter.
Also, it’s not easy for our families with Carsten and myself both working full time. Carsten’s training involved commuting 30 km each way to his office where he is a controller in the family business.
But I love this race (The Cape Epic). It is the most important MTB stage race in the world getting lot’s of exposure in Germany. I love the nature and the scenery is spectacular. Of course, riding with Carsten is a privilege and I’m always learning technical skills from him. Little things like riding down a steep drop-off that I would normally walk down makes me proud.
CRANK: What kind of business are you involved in?
UB: I’m involved with a few things. From 1st January 2011, I have been working with the Merida/Centurion brand in Germany, for Wolfgang Renner, who was the pioneer of mountain king in Europe. He was the first guy to cross the Alps by bike and effectively brought mountain biking to Europe.
I’m also involved with two local MTB parks in my area, working together with the local municipality to manage over 300 km of MTB and hiking trails to maintain signage, trail rights, build new trails etc.
My goal is to break down the barriers between the mountain bikers and other trail users – the bikers are not “monsters in the forest” as they are often portrayed.
I host biking weeks in Spain and Italy involving up to week of road or mountain biking complete with a hotel package. I have one starting on the Thursday after the Cape Epic in Mallorca.
CRANK: What are your impressions of South Africa?
UB: I have been coming to South Africa since 1996 for annual training camps which evolved into holidays with the family. I love this place.
I was quite annoyed with the general “anti-SA” sentiment in Germany prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup making out that South Africa was a bad place for tourists and so on. I would often say to those people “Have you been there?” or “Maybe you should go there and see for yourself and you may change your mind.”
CRANK: Getting back to your pro career, tell us a little bit about the enigmatic Jan Ullrich.
UB: I have nothing but great memories of Jan. A great guy, but often misunderstood and maligned by the German media who are particularly ruthless – one day you are a hero and the next a villain.
People have to realize that Jan grew up without a father in East Germany and was suddenly a superstar at a very young age – it’s difficult for a youngster.
Of course with being in that situation, you have many people who become your ‘friends’ but are actually ‘friends for profit’. Just look at Facebook. How can a person have five thousand friends? So Jan tended to withdraw and built a wall around his family as a defence mechanism.
A great guy and, as a rider, on a different level to ninety nine percent of the others. A one in a million talent.
CRANK: You spent a couple of seasons with a smaller German team, Gerolsteiner, after spending the bulk of your career with Team Telekom. How did this come about?
UB: After eleven years with Telekom I found myself with no contact which was a bit hard to take. I didn’t want to end like that so I was approached by a smaller German team called Gerolsteiner and ended up riding the 2003 Tour de France after thinking 2001 was my last Tour – I rode the 2002 Tour at the eleventh hour after another rider fell ill.
I enjoyed my time at Gerolsteiner. The team operated on a far smaller budget compared to Telekom but felt more like a family.
I decided to call it a day after a race that I had previously won – the World Cup race in San Sebastian in northern Spain. One of my favourite races, I realized it was time to move on after lying on the beach the day before. Not exactly ideal preparation for a World Cup race but after fifteen years as a pro without any major injuries, I am very grateful. It was time to move on.
CRANK: You were a regular contributor to Cycle Sport magazine journals during your pro career giving an interesting insight into life in the peleton, including some of your ambitions once you retired. Do you still have the desire to climb the Himalayas?
UB: I was asked my a journalist friend if I would be interested in writing a monthly article for a cycling magazine, not realising that it was an English publication. So I ended up dictating my column to him in German, which he would translate into English and send it off to be published.
As far as the Himalayas are concerned, I would love to. But at the moment it is simply not possible. I would rather watch my kids grow up but maybe once they have finished school I will think about it. One has to bear in mind that it is extremely expensive to undertake. Right now my priorities are to support my family.