By Brecht Decaluwé in Maastricht, The Netherlands
Stefan Schumacher was the surprise winner of last year's Amstel Gold Race, and now as defending champion finds himself under a bit more pressure than when he came to the race as lieutenant to team-mate Davide Rebellin in 2007.
Last year the 26 year-old German arrived at the start in Maastricht with a leg injury that he sustained in País Vasco. That injury threw his chances in the Dutch Spring Classic into doubt, but perhaps that uncertainty gave him a bit of an advantage. The bald German from the Gerolsteiner team made the final selection with Rebellin, and jumped before the final ascent of the Cauberg with three kilometres to go. While the other favourites marked each other, 'Schumi' held off the chase, and won by a comfortable 21 second margin with Rebellin taking the sprint for second.
This year, Schumacher has better condition, but also a heavier weight to carry with bib number one. "Thanks to that injury there wasn't too much pressure, which is good of course," the German recalled of last year. "This year I feel pressure, but that's normal. This is the week for which I worked all winter long; these are my races. It's the most important part of the season and for riders like me there's always pressure in these races," Schumacher explained to Cyclingnews.
Regardless of his form, Schumacher didn't want to speculate on the outcome of the race. "Sometimes you do everything perfect in the preparation, but still things go wrong in the race. Nevertheless it's not a lottery because if you're a good professional then you know how to be good. On the other hand we're still humans, so sometimes you can't keep everything under control," Schumacher said.
By winning the Amstel Gold Race again Schumacher would become one of the few riders who repeated the win on the Cauberg, but the German didn't prefer that above winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège for the first time. "A repeat win would be great, but a win in the other races would be fantastic as well. I'm not a specialist in statistics. My goal is to win one of those races."
Traditionally the riders for Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège get ready in Spain while the other riders are battling for the victory on the cobbles of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix. Of course Schumacher was one of the riders in the peloton that raced in País Vasco. "I wasn't lucky in País Vasco. I had a very good feeling in the legs, but there were always small problems in the finale," he admitted. "Sometimes I had bad luck with the bike, but also in the sprint due to crashes. I didn't crash myself luckily. I'm optimistic about my condition," the 26 year-old looked back on his performance in Spain.
His time in the Basque Tour did not show him any one rider who would be his main competition for Sunday. "I've seen a lot of guys who are strong, but there was nobody who was stronger than the others," Schumacher stated. "Contador was a level above the rest, but I don't think he's riding tomorrow; he's not a man for the classics anyway. So, there's nobody I would call the big favourite," Schumacher said.
When asked about Kim Kirchen, who won two stages in País Vasco, Schumacher didn't gave him much credit. "I don't know if Kirchen can do it. I've never seen him on the podium in a race of more than 200km, but then again I wasn't the big favourite last year either thanks to that," Schumacher realized that earlier results didn't matter too much. "You never know. Kirchen was really strong, but he won the stages that finished in a sprint and the Amstel Gold Race will not be like that."
When asked about the characteristics of the most famous Dutch one day race, Schumacher was clear. "It's up and down the whole day, there's no time to recover. Nobody's fresh if you come to the last 30 km. Some guys are dead in the finale, and the rest is not finished," Schumacher laughed. "On the Kruisberg and the Eyserbosweg the race starts and then there's not a second where you can let you attention slip away. Hopefully that [the Kruisberg] will be the moment in the race where you see me up front for the first time."
The weather conditions didn't matter too much for Schumacher, although he was worried with the rain that was pouring down on Saturday. "Three years ago I did it in the rain, but we will see. It is a little more dangerous as there are a lot of small streets, and a lot of corners. It's a very nervous race. It's somewhere between the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It's not comparable with the Tour de France. This is another discipline," Schumacher explained.
Schumacher expects to be at the front in the finale on Sunday, but just as last year, when the team had three riders in the front group before using up Fabian Wegmann, he anticipates he will not be the only Gerolsteiner rider at the head of the race. "On paper we have the strongest team. We have Davide [Rebellin] and me, but Fabian [Wegmann] will be there in the finale as well. It's always an advantage to have a lot of guys in the front. Last year we had two guys in the group of seven, so we could attack one after the other," Schumacher explained.
By having the number one and two of last year it might become some sort of a problem when they are clearly the strongest riders again in the 2008 edition. For now, it's uncertain who is the team leader at the German Gerolsteiner squad. Last year it seemed like Schumacher was annoyed by comments in the press that he owed the victory to Rebellin. "I have a good relationship with Davide, but last year I think I was the strongest rider and I felt like I could win the race in the sprint on the Cauberg as well.
"It was an impressive victory and I'm really proud of it," he said firmly. "Then I don't want to hear shit from the German press who feel that I didn't earn the win because I had my team-mate who covered my attack. Davide did a good job, but I did a good job as well," Schumacher clarified that both riders respect each other.
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