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For some, it’s a two year suspension and then a complete return to action. Think Alejandro Valverde. Think Ivan Basso. Think many banned riders who do their time, then return to race at the highest level.
For others, it’s a period in the wilderness which seems to stretch on and on. Granted, there are many fans and commentators out there who call for lifetime bans, but when some riders have a clear, defined period out and then return to big contracts and top races while others remain in limbo, it seems that there is a clear disparity in the current system.
Stefan Schumacher is one of those who is in the latter group. The German rider tested positive for CERA during the 2008 Tour de France, losing the two time trial wins he clocked up there as part of the Gerolsteiner team.
Traces of the substance were also detected in a sample given at the Olympic Games and he was banned until August 2010.
After serving a two year suspension, Schumacher struggled to find a big team. He raced with Continental teams between 2010 and 2014, then finally got back to the Pro Continental level this season via a one year deal with the Polish squad CCC Sprandi-Polkowice.
However, any thoughts that he could finally put the period of punishment behind him have been shown to be inaccurate in recent months.
Although his team secured a wildcard slot to the Giro d’Italia, neither Schumacher nor team-mate Davide Rebellin – another nabbed for CERA in the 2008 Olympics – were at the start on Saturday.
Giro director Mauro Vegni has said he preferred that neither are at the race; while he stopped short of saying this was a condition of the team’s selection, rumours suggest that this was indeed the case.
“Other guys had it easier to come back”
Both riders were in competition recently at the Presidential Tour of Turkey. On the final day in Istanbul, Schumacher spoke to CyclingTips minutes before the start of the final stage, discussing a number of matters. These included the Giro situation and also the varying treatment of riders who had incurred bans.
“For sure I would like to go to the Giro,” he said, speaking frankly about the situation while also saying he didn’t know the full facts. “It is a big race and it is nice to do this race. But yeah, it is the decision of the team, it is my job here and so I focus on Turkey today and then next week I go to race in Poland.”
Asked about suggestions that the wildcard place may have been contingent on himself and Rebellin not being on the start list, he was diplomatic, not willing to be critical of the race.
The official CCC Sprandi-Polkowice line is that the team makes the selections, and that’s how he too speaks about it.
“I don’t want to talk about the Giro now because, like I said, it is the decision of the team and I didn’t have the perfect season yet,” he said. “I broke my wrist in the Ruta del Sol, I am coming back now. I am new on the team.
“It is not like I can go out and say, ‘hey, hey, I have to be in the Giro,’ because we have strong riders on the team.
“Like I said, it is a decision of the team. I don’t know what happened because I never heard something from the RCS. In the beginning of the season I spoke to the team and asked them if there was a problem and they said, ‘no, there is no problem.’ It is rumours, whatever.
“You have to talk to other people about that.”
However, while Schmacher didn’t want to say too much about the difference between himself and Rebellin and other riders such as Valverde and Basso, he accepted that there appeared to be an imbalance.
“It is obvious that other guys had it easier to come back to the highest level. That is just how it is,” he stated.
Cycling analyst Inrng made some very valid points recently in discussing this situation. He acknowledged that many people’s initial reaction to their non-participation may be a welcoming one, but he then pointed out that there was a clear inconsistency at work.
“Do we exclude all riders with a doping history?” he wrote. “Well, Alberto Contador got busted for clenbuterol and Ivan Basso has been banned too but both riders belong to a wealthy World Tour team so the Giro doesn’t have leverage over them. But Franco Pellizotti looks set to captain wildcard invitees Androni and he’s been thrown off the Giro podium for his bio passport. Should someone have a word with them?”
“Let’s not dwell too much, it’s easy to start drowning in bias, inconsistency and hypocrisy. The more fundamental point is that it’s a recipe for chaos. Continue with the idea and if a race wanted to stop an eligible rider one year what if next year they invited a banned one?”
As mentioned, Schumacher didn’t want to dwell on the point. His team, after all, is a wildcard entry to the race and it would not be diplomatic for him to rail against non-selection. To talk too long about riders such as Valverde and Basso would also lead some to be critical.
What he will say is that on a personal level, he considers that the best thing is to look forward. “It is now seven years since I made my mistake. I have to move on, I have to learn,” he reasoned.
“It is better to focus on yourself, to deal with your own situation. To take the best out of it, stay positive. That is what I learned.”
“I went through some tough times…for sure I changed”
This writer first spoke to Schumacher in person at a Gerolsteiner team training camp in early 2007. Cycling then was dealing with the aftershocks of Floyd Landis’ positive test and disqualification from his Tour de France victory.
At the time Schumacher appeared to say the right things. Lying on a massage table, a white towel covering his nether regions while a soigneur kneaded out tight muscles, he said that the sport had to move on from doping and that he was a clean rider.
Just over a year later those words were shown to be untrue.
Fast forward several seasons and when asked, he’s again speaking about the subject. This time around, there are reasons to believe he could be telling the truth. He’s been through a lot, his body language rings more true and his results have been far more modest in recent years.
There’s no certainty, of course, but Schumacher appears to speak frankly about his mistakes and how he approaches things.
“I am a different person now. That time I was young, I just wanted to dominate, to win,” he said. “I saw other guys doing things, so I took advantage of the information I had. It was just a consequence.
“[Since then] I grew up a little bit,” he continued. “I was 26 eight years ago. Now I am 33, turning 34. A lot of things happened, obviously [laughs].
“I went through some tough times, really hard times, and I changed. For sure I changed.
“You have to learn from this. Otherwise…how to get through it…? Now I feel I am a little bit more humble, more able to focus on what is good and what is positive.”
“If you want to win, you have to be obsessive. But that doesn’t mean you take doping”
To a certain extent, no rider has fully been able to shrug off past misdemeanours. David Millar was perhaps the most outspoken about the need to race clean and spent time on WADA’s athlete’s board, yet years later he was still being questioned by some fans of the sport.
Even if Schumacher is doing things 100 percent clean, he will never be able to convince everyone. So he just pushes on, trying to live his own life and get on with the remaining years he has in the sport.
Ditto for Rebellin. The latter came under the microscope when he won stage three in the Tour of Turkey, dropping the other riders to solo to victory at the summit finish of Elmali.
He cracked three days later and slipped to second overall behind Kristijan Durasek (Lampre-Merida). The latter went on to win the race overall, while Rebellin crashed on the final stage and was forced to retire with a dislocated shoulder.
Schumacher too missed out, waiting for his CCC Sprandi-Polkowice team-mate when he fell and then being unable to get back to the bunch. He, Jan Hirt and Mateusz Taciak all retired from the event because of that.
When he spoke to CyclingTips he had no inkling of the misfortune that was in store, but said then that he had taken satisfaction from how the team had performed. He pointed out that it took a stage win via Rebellin and also led the race for three days, defending the race leader’s turquoise jersey.
He also said that he was impressed by the morale on the squad and the way that Rebellin and others were able to accept the disappointing result on stage six and then try to put it behind them.
“That is just how it is. Davide is like an…like an idol for me in how to deal with these situations.
“He came just to the finish and said, ‘I did my best, I just didn’t have the legs.’ If he wins he is happy, if he doesn’t win it is also okay because it is true, eh? If you give 100 percent, that is all you have and you have to accept it and continue from that.”
So, given the shortcuts taken by riders in the past, does he consider that accepting that things sometimes don’t work out is a better approach than having an obsessive need to win?
“I don’t know if I want to go into that, because if you want to win, you have to be obsessive to be successful in professional sports,” he answered.
He then clarified a point. “That doesn’t mean that you have to take doping, if you mean that, you know?
“Talking about PEDs, I think it is good not to be too obsessive, not too cross the line, absolutely, but on the other hand you need that kind of fire, that determination. That killer instinct.
“You have to be…you used the word obsessive, and that is still something you have to have. But on the other hand what I wanted to say is…I tend to be too emotional. If I lose I am disappointed. I could kill somebody or whatever. But Davide is not like this.
“For sure he is not happy [chuckles], he prefers to win and he is giving all he has, but in the next moment if you don’t win, if you lose, you also have to accept it.”
“If the guy who lost the jersey keeps his cool, then it helps also the others to accept it, you know? To keep things in perspective.”
“It would mean a lot…it would complete at least that story”
So, at 33 years of age, what is next for Stefan Schumacher? While Valverde and others ride in the sport’s Grand Tours, where will he line out?
The Giro d’Italia has started without him but he has redirected his focus to other events. He competed in the 2.2-ranked Szlakiem Grodow Piastowskich in Poland, netting 14th, and will now go on to ride events such as the Arctic Race of Norway, the Tour de Suisse, the German national championships, the Tour of Austria and the Tour of Poland.
He points out the latter has a time trial and so it could give him a chance to fare well.
Still, he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on himself.
“To be honest, I was seven years not racing on this level,” he points out. “I was racing, I was doing some good races also with the Continental teams, but maybe I need also a little bit of time to get my rhythm back. Because this is…okay, here is a big level, but if you look at races like Catalunya, it is pretty hard, you know? It is something I didn’t do for many years now.
“I feel now maybe I need a little bit of time to be really…to reach my 100 percent.”
Given that he has been with smaller teams since his return, it’s clear that he hasn’t made anything like the same money he would have had he been able to get back to the WorldTour like other rides such as Valverde.
So, is his persistence to some extent a sign of passion for the sport?
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Okay, for sure there are also things you don’t like. It is not just always perfect, but for sure it is a passion. I love this sport. That is why I do it. Otherwise I would do something else already for a long time.”
Schumacher speaks more about cycling, his motivations and his thoughts on how clean the current peloton is in the audio interview above.
On a personal level, he states more than once that he has to keep his head down and to try to achieve as much as he personally can.
“For me the passion to ride my bike, to win is enough, because I went through so much bullshit,” he said, before clarifying that last comment. “What I mean by bullshit is I caused it all. It is not just that I am a victim. For sure I was also not really lucky, but for me it is enough to…my goal is to reach my hundred percent as a rider, to get everything out of it and to put all the work into training, everything you can do to be better.”
He is clear that his future is undecided; what team he will ride for, whether he will ever get back to the WorldTour level and what races he will be able to do. Also, how well he can do.
But, asked what he would hope to achieve, he has a target in mind. If he achieves this, it will help him reach a point where he is more accepting about everything that has happened in the past decade.
“My goal is to have a signature win. Something big,” he said. “Whether it is a stage in a Grand Tour or a Classic, or something you know you can really say that…I don’t want to finish my career [without that].
“Okay, I also had my victories in the last years, but to be really coming back after all that what happened…to have one [big win]…”
His sentence remains unfinished, but the sentiment is clear; taking a significant result would bring a huge amount of personal satisfaction.
When it was suggested to him that it would perhaps round the circle, close a chapter, he readily agreed.
“It would mean a lot. Like you say, that would…that would complete at least that story,” he said. “That journey. That would be something meaningful for me to do that. I am going to fight for this…so let’s see if it happens.”
He laughs as he says the final word, knowing nothing is certain. Unlike Valverde, he doesn’t yet know if he can return to Grand Tours. He doesn’t yet know if he can get back to a high level.
Still, even though that brings uncertainty for him, it’s also a little reassuring for us.
When what seemed effortless before now takes extra grunt and sweat, it’s a little easier to believe that the path chosen, the methods used, may be different ones.