News feature, January 15, 2008
Stefan Schumacher has the knack of landing himself in controversial situations but always managing to come out of them on the right side of the law – even if his continual protestations of innocence are starting to get a bit tarnished from their constant use. His story starts with a positive doping control, and another positive control is also the most recent chapter in the saga. Cyclingnews' Susan Westemeyer took a look at the controversial episodes in the young rider's career.
The 26 year-old German's up-and-down professional career started in 2002 with Team Telekom. That year he won the young rider's award in the Peace Race and the Niedersachsen Rundfahrt, finishing eighth overall in the Peace Race.
He was unable to repeat his successes in 2003, and Telekom let him go. He dropped to the GS-III Team Lamonta, where he was finally able to establish himself. His biggest success in 2004 was as runner-up behind Andreas Klöden in the German national championships. "Schumi" brought in two wins that year, a stage in the Bayern Rundfahrt and the Druivenkoers Overijse.
Those successes were enough to land him a contract with the GS-II team Shimano-Memory Corp. He got off to a fantastic start with the Dutch team, taking the overall title in the Niedersachsen Rundfahrt and the Ster Elektrotoer, as well as winning four stages in the Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfahrt on his way to the overall win.
As thrilling as it was to win four stages in Rheinland-Pfalz, he was brought back down to earth only a few weeks later. It was announced that he had tested positive for the amphetamine Cathine during the race. He was promptly suspended by his team.
He equally promptly held a press conference, where he was accompanied by none other than Michael Lehner, who has become famous for his involvement in German professional cycling doping cases. Schumacher had a simple explanation for the matter: his mother gave it to him.
More specifically, his mother, Dr. Christine Schumacher, prescribed Antiadipositum X 112 T for her son, who has suffered from allergies and allergic asthma since his childhood. The drug contains the substance norpseudoephedrine (Cathine), which both Dr. Schumacher and the Shimano team doctor claimed not to have found on the International Cycling Union's (UCI) list of banned substances. They further said that they asked the Dutch Anti-doping Agency (where the Shimano team was based - ed.), which informed them that the drug was not forbidden. Only then did she give her son the prescription in the belief that it was allowed.
The Bund Deutscher Radfahrer (BDR - German cycling federation) cleared him of the charges that September. A suspension could not be imposed, it ruled, since he had proved that he had made no mistake and therefore had no guilt on a doping violation.
Everything was tied up neatly and tidily, but the affair left questions in the minds of many – not to mention the jokes about having "a note from Mom" to excuse him.
One of those who had no questions about the affair was Hans-Michael Holczer, the outspoken team manager at Team Gerolsteiner. He signed Schumacher to a three-year contract, starting in 2006.
The tall young man with the shaved head came into full bloom in 2006 at the ProTour team, winning two stages in the Giro d'Italia and wearing the overall leader's maglia rosa for two days. However, he was unable to get through the year without a further controversy. Once again, he came out of it with a plausible explanation and the rules were on his side, but it left a bitter taste in many mouths.
The scene this time was the Eneco Benelux Tour. He went into the final stage only three seconds behind leader George Hincapie of Discovery Channel, and ended up winning the race after taking Hincapie down within sight of the finish line.
Schumacher, Hincapie and about 40 others were furiously chasing Philippe Gilbert, who had a two-second lead with only metres to go. It was clear that the Belgian rider would take the win, but with only three seconds dividing them on classification, it was no-holds-barred between Hincapie and Schumacher. Suddenly, the German rider, who was barrelling along right on the barrier, swerved violently back towards the centre, bringing down Hincapie who was right behind him.
He went on to finish third on the stage, taking enough time bonuses to push him ahead of Hincapie, who walked over the line in 41st place, with a time of one second behind Schumacher. The American was understandably furious, yelling and gesturing at the unhappy overall winner. Discovery appealed, the race jury met, but the final standings were not changed.
"Suddenly I got hit by a spectator and swerved to the right because of it. I definitely did not do that deliberately, I almost crashed myself," Schumacher said. He ended up winning the race by one second over Hincapie.
Schumacher continued to receive the full support of his Gerolsteiner team, and he repaid it with another good spring in 2007. He took his biggest win ever in the Amstel Gold Race, but his main goal of the year was the World Championships in his hometown of Stuttgart.
And even though he finished third in those championships, they opened up the next round of troubles. Only days after his spectacular results, it was announced that he had shown "irregular blood values" in the days before the race. Nothing that was enough to require a suspension, but enough to raise eyebrows – and questions.
He held another press conference and provided a bewildering array of numbers, statistics and medical studies, all of which were to prove that a nasty case of diarrhoea was responsible for the fluctuations in his blood values. His attorney, Lehner, criticized the German National Anti-doping Agency for even publicizing the case in the first place. "The Schumacher case should have been closed after the NADA [German national anti-doping agency - ed.] took one single look at the blood values. It is irresponsible to make such things public," he said.
Again, he was cleared by all the agencies responsible for the matter, but the public was left with a confused impression, not sure what the flood of blood values was supposed to prove and wondering if he had gotten away with something.
Schumacher himself was happy enough with his bronze medal that he, understandably, wanted to celebrate. Exactly one week after winning, he went to a Stuttgart discotheque with friends, where they celebrated with alcohol. Schumacher, having consumed his share, was careful to take a taxi home.
However, that was when the problems started. He arrived home in the early hours to find his girlfriend absent. Without thinking, he climbed into his car to search for her. The search and the alcohol led him into a garden fence, but "in shock," he drove away before returning to the scene of the accident. The police were quickly on the scene and conducted the usual breath and blood tests. He was charged with driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident.
It was careless; the kind of thing that brings bad headlines and makes a team manager wince. Schumacher promptly admitted his guilt and apologized. He also proclaimed himself surprised at reports that he had tested positive on the blood test given by the police.
Was he perhaps taking a page out of the Jan Ullrich book? The 1997 Tour de France winner made similar unfortunate headlines in 2002, when he was arrested for drunk driving and leaving the scene of an accident after he wiped out a stand full of bikes. Only a few weeks later he tested positive for amphetamines in an unannounced doping control while he was recovering from knee problems. He later confessed to having accepted pills from an unnamed acquaintance in a disco.
At the time, amphetamines were on the forbidden list, whether in or out of competition. He was suspended for six months.
Schumacher was luckier. He announced the beginning of January that he had been informed that traces of amphetamine were found in the blood sample that the police took after his accident. He continued to deny having used any sort of drug. "My problem is that I haven't the slightest idea how it could have gotten there. I can't say anything else although I know that this is not a good statement. The only thing that I absolutely know: I did not knowingly take any drugs."
Once again he was able to escape, though. "[The BDR] came to the conclusion that it is not a doping case, because amphetamines are not on the World Anti-Doping Agency's [WADA] 'out-of-competition' forbidden list," the federation said. The change in the doping rules had been made in 2004. It is so far unknown whether Schumacher will face civil sanctions.
It is also unknown whether his team will sanction him in any way, although it seems doubtful. Holczer has repeatedly said that such things are personal and not professional, but it is obviously a situation with which he cannot be happy. He must also be concerned about the further implications – how will potential sponsors view this? Gerolsteiner has already announced that it would not extend its contract, which expires at the end of this year.
Germany has been shaken by the numerous doping scandals, confessions and disclosures in 2007, from EPO (Erythropoietin) use on Team Telekom in 1996 to allegations that T-Mobile Team used blood doping during the 2006 Tour de France. The fans, and of course potential sponsors, have had their faith in the sport deeply shaken. Schumacher is being touted as Gerolsteiner's captain for this season, and as one of the German hopes for the future. However, he carries with him the reputation of one who "gets away with it," "has friends in high places," or "gets off on technicalities."
Schumacher can understand some of that reaction. "I can understand that people think 'he must have a skeleton in his closet.' And as an outsider I would probably also believe that it can't all be a coincidence," he told the Stuttgarter Zeitung this week. "And I'm not dumb. I know it looks bad."
It looks so bad, in fact, that he thought of throwing in the towel after the World Championships and turning his back on professional cycling. "That was the best race of my life – and a few days later it was ruined." Perhaps this season he can find a way out of this vicious circle and put the rumours behind him.