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Markus Fothen isn't a name on the tip everyone's tongue, but he could well be in the future. The 23-year-old Gerolsteiner rider quietly finished 12th in the Giro d'Italia, inspiring hopes of German fans everywhere who are already keen to find a replacement for the ageing Jan Ullrich.
"We're satisfied with how Markus rode during this Giro," said Gerolsteiner sport director Christian Henn. "We knew he was good in the time trials, but the biggest surprise was his ability to stay with the top riders in the tougher climbs."
A former trackie and winner of the U-23 world time trial title in 2003, Fothen surprised even himself in the Giro's big mountains. He hung on in the Dolomites and only lost track over the intimidating steeps up the Colle delle Finestre.
"I came to this Giro to make a test in the big tours, now this result gives me confidence for the future," said Fothen. "That's where I see my future, in the big races like the Tour de France. I got stronger over the course of this race. It was hard on the Finestre, but I found a group and made it over without blowing up."
Fothen came to his first three-week tour with bold goals to reflect his ambitious character. "I thought I could be in the top 15 without too much difficult, so by finishing 12th I've surpassed my expectations," he continued. "The race that fascinates me is the Tour de France. That's the race that really gets me excited."
Fothen has been working closely with ex-pro Udo Bolts to round out his climbing skills and durability for three weeks. While other young German riders such as Fabian Wegmann are coming up through the ranks, many believe Fothen is their top hope. "We don't want to rush him but we think he can really progress to be a future contender in the longer races," Henn concluded.
It's still questionable whether he'll be tapped to start this year's Tour. Some of the team staff want him to follow a similar programme to Wegmann last year, racing the first half or so of the Tour and pulling out.
But with Gerolsteiner amping up for a run for the top five with Levi Leipheimer and Georg Totschnig co-leading the German water boys, the team might be under pressure to bring riders who will be able to make the long haul to Paris.
Fothen is sure his future lies in the Tour, it just might not be this year. "I don't know if I will race the Tour," Fothen said. "I am tired after this Giro, so I think it's better for me to think about the Tour in 2006."
With Ullrich reaching the end of his career, Germans can only hope Fothen will pick up the banner.
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