American eagle Adrien Costa was swooping on him in the mountains and the gap was inexorably decreasing: 50 seconds, 40 seconds and now 30 with still five kilometres to go. But Nick Schultz, never panicked during stage 7 at the Tour de l'Avenir.
The Australian all-rounder, the last man from an early breakaway, did what he usually does: giving his all on a bike, finding out the ultimate resources within his body. "I didn't want to look behind me, so I only realised I had won when I went 200 meters from the finish line," Schultz said.
Suddenly Costa was a bit tired himself and the advantage raised again up to 40 seconds. For once, the mouse succeeded in the cat-and-mouse game, Friday, in the penultimate stage of the Tour de l'Avenir to the ski resort of Valmeinier, Savoy.
Schultz, nearly 22 years old, took in style, through the French Alps, the first major victory of his career. He has already captured a stage of the Tour de Bretagne and a second rank overall at the Oberösterreich Rundfahrt, 7th at the Ronde de l'Isard and 10th at the Ronde de l'Oise, all UCI events, earlier this season.
"I am a battler on a bike," Schultz told Cyclingnews after his victory. "This is certainly because I have never been the best at my age. I had to work very hard and do my own things. All my cyclist's life has been a matter of fighting."
It's true Schultz didn't go through the classical Australian system with the Under-23 Academy. Although he was crowned national champion in the points race and teampursuit as a Junior he was denied to join the "Cyclons" squad and, as a result, he decided to try his own luck in Europe.
He was only 18 and didn't speak a single word of French when he joined the club of Roanne in the area of Lyon. Now Schultz is fluent and a trainee for Orica-BikeExchange.
"I had some difficult times in this experience," he admits. "I was alone in an apartment, very far from my family, I was alone at first at the French races, I didn't know anybody, I didn't know what to do... ." Fortunately the Club Routier des 4 Chemins de Roanne – the "CR4C" in short – had previously developed riders such as Arthur Vichot (FDJ), Jérôme Coppel (IAM), George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) and, during one season, raising star Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale). Schultz praises his "teammates and staff to have been extremely helpful."
But for his three seasons as part of the club, Schultz stands in an in-between situation: he was "too Australian" for the French recruiters and "too French" to some of the Australian managers. The U23 national squad gave him some opportunities though. In 2014 he was selected to a few Classics in Italy and, in 2015 Spring, the national coach called him one week before U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège to replace some ill and injured riders.
"I was on vacation on the Cote d'Azur, off-the-bike, but I couldn't say 'no'," Schultz recalls in a laugh. "I really wanted to show what I could do and help the team as much as I could." He will never define himself like that, but the “Frenchie" Australian was more or less a "gap stop" at that time. Then he became more and more legitimate.
Schultz became a very respected domestique, as he supported his leaders Caleb Ewan or Rob Power, at some major events. Then he turned into a domestique deluxe in the 2015 Tour de l'Avenir, providing some strong support to Jack Haig to his second place overall.
Schultz joined the SEG Racing team this season, a team set up by Dutch cycling agents SEG to foster promising talent. "The team created important opportunities for me and offered me an ideal race calendar to develop," Schultz said of his stint with the team.
His status has grown through 2016 and Schultz started the 'l'Avenir race as a co-leader among two or three other good climbers. He showed an impressive time trial Tuesday with a spot in top 15. Thursday, after he had a 'jour sans' on a gruelling stage to Tignes, he decided to race as a dark horse again.
"This is how I race and how I live: I take all the opportunities," Schultz says. It doesn't mean he is opportunistic, though, and all his staff and teammates praise him for his loyalty and social character, whether it's at the National squad, the Continental SEG Racing that he joined this year, or Orica-BikeExchange where he has been a trainee at the Vuelta a Burgos – he will also race the GP Peter Van Pategem in September with the WorldTour outfit.
For now he has not secured a pro contract for 2017. He is not bitter or discouraged in anyway. "I will fight again," Schultz says.