Tour de Suisse, June 19, 2008
Two years ago, Markus Fothen was in the limelight due to his holding of the best young rider's jersey in the Tour de France. The German Gerolsteiner rider eventually finished second in that competition to Damiano Cunego, placing 15th overall in the race, and showing that he was one of the top emerging talents in the sport.
2007 was somewhat quiet but the former World U23 time trial champion showed he was back to top form on Thursday this week, winning the fifth stage of the Tour de Suisse in Caslano. On the day's final climb, Fothen set off in pursuit of Fränk Schleck, catching the CSC rider on the descent and then racing down towards the finish with him.
Schleck was aiming to take the race lead and so it is likely that Fothen would have been the stage winner had the two arrived at the line together; however, his breakaway companion crashed with approximately four kilometres to go, enabling the Gerolsteiner rider to solo to victory.
"We had agreed to work together and then let the victory be settled in the final kilometre. As things turned out, I had more time to enjoy it." - Fothen on Schleck's crash
"It is wonderful, it is a great race here at the Tour de Suisse," the German said afterwards, delighted at his win while also being relieved to hear that Schleck had no serious injuries. "It is a good preparation for my season goal of the Tour. I am in a very good condition and am very lucky.
"The first goal today was to work for Oliver Zaugg as he is our rider for the general classification. I did that but when we saw that there were so many riders on the final climb, we spoke amongst ourselves and it was clear then that if I was strong, I could attack.
"Once I attacked the aim was to gain as much time as possible until the top of the climb, then try to catch Fränk Schleck on the descent."
Fothen did precisely that, and the two worked together until the accident. He said afterwards that he was sure that the consequences would be worse. "The crash was unbelievable, it looked terrible. I didn't have much time to react to it - if I had, it would have perhaps made me brake hard and perhaps fall too.
"When I saw it happen, I had the impression that it was finished [for Fränk Schleck], that he would be very badly injured. I am reassured and am very happy that he can continue. He was lucky.
"We had agreed to work together and then let the victory be settled in the final kilometre. As things turned out, I had more time to enjoy it. I spoke to Robert Förster the other day and we agreed that winning alone is the best way, because then you have time to savour the victory. Sprinters only know in the last few metres that they have won, but if you do it solo you have longer to enjoy the feeling."
Fothen hit the line 50 seconds ahead of Astana rider Serguei Ivanov, with the main group of favourites finishing a further seven seconds back. Race leader Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) was present in this bunch, preserving his yellow jersey. The stage winner moved up to seventh overall as a result of the time gained, ending the day 31 seconds behind.
It made up for a quieter performance on Sunday, when he finished one minute 28 seconds adrift of Anton on the mountain stage to Flumserberg. "My goal at the start of this Tour de Suisse was to prepare myself for the Tour de France," he said, when asked about the time lost. "I wanted to test myself on a couple of stages, including the Flumserberg, but I had problems with the cold there. Today was a day when I thought that I could do something, and it worked out well."
However, although he's within striking distance of Anton, he said that another Gerolsteiner rider [currently sitting third overall, 18 seconds back] would be the team's bet for the general classification. "I am happy to get the stage win. Tomorrow, I will certainly ride for Oliver Zaugg, because he is our GC rider here. I will put myself at his service."
Aiming for the Tour
Now 26 years old, Fothen highlighted his stage race ability when finishing 12th overall in the 2005 Giro d'Italia. He was also third in the King of the Mountains competition at that year's Deutschland Tour. 2006 saw him post that strong Tour de France debut and expectations were high that the following season would see him progress further. However, although he won a stage of the Tour of Romandie, the year was a quiet one; 34th overall in the Tour de France and 106th in the Vuelta a España showed that something was not right.
"Last season was not so easy because I built a house at the start of the year and finished it at the start of April," he said. "My head was not really on cycling then, and after that I broke a bone in my hand. However I think the biggest mistake I made was doing altitude training a short time before the Tour. I was tired doing that and I didn't eat so much there because I wanted to lose weight. It was a big problem."
This time round, things are looking much better. "I am in very good condition, I am satisfied," he smiled. "I think I am in better condition than in 2006, as regards my sprinting and climbing. I am very satisfied. My weight is low and I am happy with today. I think the Tour will be good for me.
"Next up will be the German championships, then I'll see what I can do in France. In 2006 I was fifteenth overall and I would like to do a bit better this time. Last year was a season that was disrupted by a couple of problems, but now I feel good again. I'm aiming to improve on that 2006 Tour result."