One of the most experienced riders on the UnitedHealthcare team, German Robert Förster is entering his 12th professional year with the American Pro Continental outfit, but rather than rue the fact that he's no longer racing at the WorldTour level, the 33-year-old is delighting in his role as mentor for the young squad.
Förster made his claim to fame with stage wins in the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España, and has plenty to offer his young teammates in terms of advice. As captain of the sprint squad, he is working with young American hopeful Jake Keough, Dutch sprinter Boy Van Poppel and Australian Hilton Clarke to perfect the team's lead-out train.
At 33, Förster is having more fun than ever in the sport, and said that at this point in his career, winning isn't everything - it's equally as satisfying to launch his teammate to victory. "The guys are more together," he told Cyclingnews at the team's camp in Palm Springs, California. "I can say to Keough, 'we make the sprint for you'. I'm not pissed about that. I have a job, I can work with the young guys, they listen to me and it feels good."
The affable German described the team's well-rounded quiver of fast men, naming himself as the man for the high-speed sprints where the peloton comes into the finale single-file, while Keough is the man for the "crazy sprints". Clarke, he said, is good for the US races but is still unproven in Europe, while Van Poppel is a specialist for when the road tilts uphill in the final kilometer.
"Van Poppel, he's a fast guy, I think he's a little bit of a special sprinter. For him the uphill sprints are good, he's not a normal bunch sprinter for flat sprints. He's young and can learn a lot."
Förster is helping to steer the team on its steady, gradual upward trajectory, and while last year's foray into European racing was a bit rough, he expects bigger things this season.
"Last year was the first year for the team to ride in Europe and it was a big step. It wasn't everything perfect, we came with one or two cars, and we had to change in the rain. It was crazy, but it's part of cycling. We learned a lot last year, and we'll come back stronger. We have more better riders this year, and I think we can make a good presence in Europe this year."
The team didn't seek invitations to the Giro d'Italia or Tour de France, but the Vuelta a España remains an outside possibility. However, Förster thinks the team should only go to a Grand Tour if they can prove they have the ability to perform there.
"It doesn't make sense to go to the Vuelta and not make a good performance. The first step is to go to Europe and be able to make the top five in the sprints, and have someone in the front. When we are strong in Europe and we see the results are coming, then we can think about the Vuelta.
"I've done nine Giros, four Tours de France and two Vueltas, I know what happens. But the young guys, to do three weeks it might be too hard. We will see, it's a step by step. It's too early to say we want to go and keep the pressure on, but when the time is right we will go."
After taking third to Alex Rasmussen and Peter Sagan at the Philadelphia International Championship, Förster is more focused on claiming victory there for himself or his team than on getting back to the Grand Tours.
"For sure for me to win Philly is a big goal. For me it will be great if I win Philly, but if I am the last guy in front of Keough and he wins, that's perfect. Philly would be a great race for us to win."
Hope for Germany with NetApp Giro invite
After six years with the Gerolsteiner squad and two with Milram, Förster has been personally impacted by the demise of German cycling as both teams disintegrated under the weight of heavy criticism from the press and a cynical attitude toward the sport following the doping scandals of the past ten years.
While the country is still rich in talent, the former powerhouse of cycling has just one professional team remaining above the Continental level: Team NetApp, which in a bright moment for German cycling just earned an invitation to the Giro d'Italia.
"This is the first big step for German cycling. We have only NetApp in German cycling - it's an American sponsor, but the team is based in Germany. It's a good step that they can ride the Giro."
It's been over five years since Germany's biggest star, Jan Ullrich, was embroiled in Operación Puerto, and other riders such as Patrick Sinkewitz and Jorg Jacksche came clean about their doping pasts, but Förster hopes that a fresh crop of talent will eventually lure the sponsors back to his home country and create opportunities there.
"You have so many good German riders, you could make a very good team. When you see all the good Germans: Tony Martin, [John] Degenkolb, [Marcel] Kittel, [Bert] Grabsch - we can't believe that no sponsor would come to Germany and make a team there.
"I hope the time comes when the sponsors will come back to German cycling.
"I spent all my time riding for German teams and it was a great time. We have a lot of sportsmen there, and after the teams went under a lot of my friends lost their jobs."
For now, he is happy racing with an American team, but, Förster said, "when German teams come [back], it will be better for everyone."