Grupetto peer pressure made Förster hang on

Gerolsteiner sprinter Robert Förster learned on Sunday that the hardest thing about a race is not the rivals or the course itself, but "the fight against yourself." And he won that fight yesterday, telling proudly, "We all survived! A great feeling."

After only 15 or 20 km, he was ready to throw in the towel and "get in the plane, go home." Directeur sportif Raimund Dietzen persuaded him to try it a little longer. As they started up the first Cat. 1 climb, it was teammate and roommate Marcel Strauss who helped him along, saying, "Just ride, Frösi, don't even think about it."

Eventually he caught up with teammates Markus Fothen and Heinrich Haussler, and the trio made plans to drop out at the feed zone. But before that, they joined the Petacchi group, and realized they weren't the only ones who wanted to take the easy way out. "It's just that, in this kind of a situation, no one wants to be the first to give up. If you drop out and the other 14 make the finish, then you can't look at yourself in the mirror. The others are torturing themselves just like you are. So you keep on going."

Things got better on the next to last climb. Förster felt that his only chance to survive was to ride at his own rhythm, which just happened to be a little faster than that of the grupetto. So he, Haussler and Staf Scheirlinckx of Cofidis took off together. Once they hit the top, they went for all-or-nothing, riding "80 or 90 km/h in the curves, even if you don't know what's there. Heinrich and I are both good descenders. Some colleagues say we're crazy. I'm not afraid, I find it fun," he said, but conceded, "But it is dangerous, you have to admit that."

The trio stayed together for the final climb and made the finish 32 minutes down. "I don't know why we ride such stages. Sure, those in the lead like Vino or Valverde put in great performances. But I think that someone like my teammate Strauss accomplished even more than they did. He rode 205 km behind everyone else, never saw more than an 8-man group. You need a lot of morale in order to get through that. In those six hours you age a few years. It is not only the physical stress, but also the mental, the fight against yourself."

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