By Hedwig Kröner in Digne-les-Bains
New Gerolsteiner rider Stefan Schumacher has made his debut in the ProTour peloton this season. Obtaining a respectable sixth placing on GC halfway through Paris-Nice (which he lost today), and the white jersey of best young rider, the former leader of the European Continental Tour rankings in 2005 experienced a few stomach problems since the beginning of the 'race to the sun', which weakened his otherwise promising abilities.
Still, the 24 year-old leads the Gerolsteiner team in France at the moment, showing himself in the hills as well as in the sprints. "I still have to find out," Schumacher replied when Cyclingnews asked him what type of rider he actually was. "On the Continental level, I was good at everything. But now, it's changed so I'm still looking to find my spot. I was up front on the mountain, but there were a few guys still going stronger than me. And to sprint against Tom Boonen, you know... I'm pretty fast in those uphill finishes like the one in Rasteau, which needed a lot of strength, but I'm not explosive enough to be a top sprinter - although I do keep up in the sprints. I'm an OK time triallist too."
So in his quest for cycling identity, all of this would point towards stage races? "I don't know yet," he insisted. "I felt that the really longer mountain climbs are still something else; and I lack the experience, so I don't know how good I can be there. A ten kilometre climb is OK, but then... I'll definitely do the Belgian classics, except Paris-Roubaix, and I think they suit me. But regarding the Grand Tours or generally, stage races, I still have to find out what I'm capable of. I've never raced a three-week tour, but I will do the Giro this year to see how I go."
Asked which were his first impressions of the top league of cycling, he answered, "I have been a pro for two years now, and last year I also raced Amstel Gold race, which went well for me. But it is surely a different type of racing, much more controlled. The races unfold in a much more organised way; the teams have a concept of how to achieve things. And of course, the overall level is higher; it's much more difficult to get to the front, be it for the sprints or in other situations."
Paris-Nice has left the German tired, but hungry for more. "The race is pretty demanding, there's no completely flat stage and they all are over 200 kilometres," he commented. "But I'm still fit and I hope it stays that way.
Schumacher lost more 1'20 minutes on the General Classification today, but retained the white jersey of best young rider. Enough to make his team proud and hopeful for his future achievements: "Stefan wasn't able to stick to the group of GC favourites in the last climb today," directeur sportif Christian Wegmann said. "Ronny Scholz did a great job to stay with him in that second group, and he tried to bridge the gap but didn't succeed. He still has the white jersey of best young rider and of course he wants to keep it. I think he has proven that we can still expect plenty of him this season; as you have also got to take into account that he hadn't raced for a while, and that this is not the Rheinland-Pfalz-Rundfahrt!"
Inevitably, the conversation with Schumacher had to include last year's doping affair involving cathine (norpseudoephedrine), which Schumacher took in an asthma medication. He was able to clear his name by proving that he was in the belief that the medicine didn't contain any forbidden substance, so finally his name was cleared.
Looking back at the affair now, he said, "It was just a pity that it lasted so long, three months. I wasn't guilty of anything but it went on until mid-September. It really overshadowed my season towards the end, but now it's definitely over and I'm looking ahead."
At the time of the events, Schumacher led the Continental Classification and was on his way to winning the Rheinland-Pfalz-Rundfahrt. Although he didn't know that the doping substance was included in his asthma remedy, did he feel that it did enhance his performances at the time? "No, I can definitely exclude that," he replied. "I won seven races that spring, and took the medication only once while racing, at the time trial [of the Rheinland-Pfalz-Rundfahrt], when I had considerable asthma problems. I won three stages before that, had a great advantage in the classification - so you can always give the drug a try but I didn't feel that it made any difference!" he almost laughed, hadn't the subject been as difficult as it was.