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From Maillot Jaune to domestique du luxe. Confirmed today as part of the Trek Factory Racing Team for the Tour de France, former winner Andy Schleck will head into the race as a helper rather than as a contender, putting on hold ambitions of a high general classification result.
It’s been a difficult, bumpy road for the Luxembourg rider since he fractured his pelvis in the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné. That crash began a two year period where his best result has been twelfth on a stage of last year’s Tour, and where he has at times fought to simply finish races rather than contending for victory.
In an interview conducted on Wednesday, Schleck opens up about that tough path. He tells CyclingTips that he has been stung by criticism but that he hasn’t given up the hope that one day, perhaps by 2015, he will return again to the Tour with a team completely dedicated to him and with genuine hopes of yellow.
“The comments have been hard at times,” he confirmed, speaking about the things some cycling fans and the media have said about him. “Most people don’t understand cycling. The criticism is sometimes a big issue. What has been written about me has been hard because I am just a human being.
“I can look today back on my career and be proud of what I achieved. I had a good career and I won’t give up. I could stop tomorrow and say, ‘listen, I had my good times,’ but that is not it. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone…but I am a fighter. I like to still fight on the bike and show something.”
Schleck said that returning to a high level is not something he wants to do in order to answer the critics, but rather for himself and those close to him.
“I don’t do it to show anyone outside, I do it for me, my family,” he explained. “Cycling is too hard to sacrifice day and night and being away from your family 290 days a year…it is too hard to do that to just show the people. You have to have a bigger motivation than that.”
From highs to lows:
When Schleck turned pro it seemed clear he was set for a very big future. He finished second overall in his first Grand Tour, the 2007 Giro d’Italia, and one year later was at times the strongest rider when he made his debut in the Tour.
Although he lost time early on in the race, he impressed many with his performances in the mountains while riding for his brother Fränk and team-mate Carlos Sastre, the eventual winner. The ability was clearly there and, in time, many felt he would top the podium in Paris.
Schleck returned in 2009 and finished second to Alberto Contador. He was the only rider in the race who looked to be in anything like the same league as the Spaniard, and closed the gap the following year to finish a very close runner-up in Paris, just 39 seconds back.
Second place two years in a row was impressive, but history shows that things worked out differently. Contador subsequently tested positive for Clenbuterol and Schleck inherited the title, receiving the yellow jersey months later from the organisers ASO.
It was the first victory by a Luxembourg rider since Charly Gaul in 1958 but Schleck wasn’t happy. He missed out on the chance to ride down the Champs Elysees in the yellow jersey and pledged to win the race in a more normal fashion in 2011.
He went close. The RadioShack Leopard rider one of the very strongest in the race, holding yellow going into the final time trial. However the Australian Cadel Evans was quicker against the clock and Schleck had to be satisfied with second overall in Paris.
Still, his run in the Tour and strong performances in some other races suggested he would have many other opportunities to win the race again.
Unfortunately, thus far, that hasn’t been possible. Schleck crashed badly during the time trial in the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné and suffered a fracture which kept him away from racing for several months. He’s made some progress in the 24 months since, netting a solid 20th overall in last year’s Tour, but is yet to approach anything like his pre-crash form.
That’s why he was named Wednesday as a domestique rather than a co-leader for the Tour. It’s also why he accepts that role without reservations.
“Of course I am happy to do the Tour,” he said. “I will go in with a different approach…I am not one of the favourites this year. I go into the Tour trying to help Fränk and Haimar [Zubeldia] to do a good overall. I will be the man who will pull for them in the climbs. That is how I am thinking, that is the line I will take to go into the Tour. To be there to help them.
“It is hard to say what they can achieve. Frank was already on the podium in the past, so I believe that maybe he can be there again. Haimar has been in the top ten a few times already. I believe that both of them can do a good overall. I estimate top ten should be possible for both of them, perhaps easily so, and I even believe top five for one of them.”
Also on the team are Fabian Cancellara and Jens Voigt, two strong powerhouses who are certain to attack. They will be joined by Matthew Busche, Markel Irizar, Gregory Rast, and Danny van Poppel, and together will try to leave as big a mark as possible on the race.
Schleck, too, hopes to do something. While he accepts the role he has been given, he harbours thoughts that he will be able to get into a break at some point and to chase a result. He hasn’t been put under pressure to do so, but if the chance is there and the legs are good, he will take it.
“You never know, the Tour can be full of surprises. Everything is possible,” he said.
Before then, though, his first thoughts are to dedicate himself to his brother Fränk and Zubeldia. While he’s a former Grand Tour winner, he puts ego aside and says that the helper role is one he is very much looking forward to. The reason? Lack of pressure.
“Sometimes when I was the leader, I was…well, not jealous, but I thought it would be nice to go one day to the Tour, just be there and do your job,” he explained.
“When you are a leader and you fail by not winning the Tour, people aren’t happy with it. For example, when I was second in the Tour, the press didn’t say ‘Andy was second in the Tour.’ They said, ‘Andy lost the Tour.’ So in the end, despite finishing second in the hardest sport event in the world, I was a loser.
“But when you are a helper and you do a good job, everybody is happy with you. I will go with this mentality in the Tour this year. It takes a lot of weight off my shoulders, and I am really happy with it.”
The long road back:
While Schleck’s crash in 2012 was a serious one and left him with a crack in his pelvis, his recovery has taken longer than many expected. Asked why he believes this is the case, he put much of the blame down to the disruption in his athletic regime.
“It is hard to come back,” he admits. “I still miss kilometres. Training kilometres and race kilometres. I have trained as much as before or even more, but I lost many kilometres in the five months when I was not on the bike.
“I am still behind because of that. I believe I missed 20,000 kilometres that year. Cycling today is so…well, I won’t say intense, but if you are gone for a few months, if you don’t ride your bike for that time, it is not easy to come back as everyone is training so hard.
“Everyone is so serious with the food, with the nutrition, with just everything around it. It is a lot more complex than it was seven, eight years before.”
Schleck said that the increased standard in the sport has made it more complicated to return to speed following prolonged injury.
“When I started as a professional, we took one and a half or two months off, but now you don’t take any time off any more,” he said. “Maybe a week or two weeks, but even in these two weeks you have to do something, you cannot just lie on the couch. You have to do some running or mountainbiking or swimming or some other sport, because you lose your condition so quickly.”
But does he have any lingering effects from his crash, other than the different in his physical level at this point in time?
Schleck confirms that he does, but doesn’t blame them for the performance differences.
“I was never 100 percent after the crash..I have a different position than before because I cannot sit the same way on the bike,” he said. “But that shouldn’t be a problem. I am pain free. On long days, of course, at the end of the day, it hurts. It is a fracture, it healed, but it will be there for the rest of my life. But I can’t say that it does slow me down.”
Instead, he feels he needs to continue working hard. To keep plugging away believing that things will come good over time.
“I am still really motivated…I have to be, otherwise I won’t train so hard,” he said, refuting suggestions by some cycling fans that he no longer has the desire. “The motivation is there. But maybe it is a different motivation…like now, going into this Tour, I’m motivated to ride for Fränk and Haimar. To do a good job for the team.”
Schleck’s form in the Tour de Suisse was solid rather than spectacular; he made it into a couple of breaks, earned himself some TV time, but slipped back before the end of the stages and finished 29th overall.
Still, he’s not too worried about that. As he points out, the years he was on the podium in the Tour, he also had relatively quiet performances in Switzerland. He was 24th in 2009, 14th in 2010 and 19th in 2011. This year was several places further back, granted, but he’s never gone particularly well in the event.
It doesn’t mean he expects to be to the front when the big guns start firing in the Tour, but he does entertain hopes that towards the end of the race, he could ride himself into decent form.
“Last year I was really good in the end of the Tour, especially on the last really hard stage. I stayed with Maxime [Monfort] so he could hold on to his place because he helped me so much over the years. But I believe if I went that day full gas on my own, I could have finished in the top five on the stage.
“It is a big maybe, but I hope for that again. I hope that by not having the pressure to take the yellow jersey and to win this Tour, maybe I can be more free and do a good result. To find good shape and to do a decent performance.”
This season is an important one for Schleck, in that it will determine what happens in the next phase of his career. He’s in the final year of his current contract with the Trek Factory Racing team, as is his brother Fränk, and he knows that the weeks and months ahead will determine what options he has.
He’s under no illusions that he needs to show what he can do. “ It is normal in cycling…if you don’t get results, a team is not interested in you. You need to get results, or you need to do a good job by being a good helper. By being loyal to your team.
“I believe I was always loyal to the team, but then it is also a question of what they expect from you, what can you give them back. I have a good relationship with the guys from Trek and from the team as well, but in the end I don’t know what they want to do next year. Maybe they want to focus more on the one day races, more on Fabian, and if so then it goes with no hard feelings. But then maybe I don’t fit so good in the roster any more.”
Schleck is clear that if he had a choice, he’d like to remain where he is. “In the beginning, we came with Leopard Trek, then they decided to make another team and I was still part of that,” he said. “I would like to stay because it is a good group. But you never know. I don’t know if they want to keep me.”
He’s aware that the best way to secure their interest is to perform well in the Tour, then go on to do something in the races which follow. One goal is the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado; he will do that rather than the Vuelta a España, and said that he is keen to do a good performance.
“I haven’t ridden this year in the States; I love to ride in the States,” he said. “I’d like to do something there. After that, there is a quite a hard world championship and also the Tour of Lombardy, which is always a nice race. In the past I showed I can be good there, and I’ll try again.”
Looking further ahead, he knows he has to earn the right to lead a team in the Tour. He will turn 30 next June and while time is not yet against him, he’s aware that it’s been three years since he’s been a real contender in the race and that he needs to prove it’s still possible.
“The biggest problem is now I need to show again that I can win a Tour. That is the first step, to show it is achievable.
“Then I need to have the team built around me. To have eight guys who have no personal ambition but who go to the Tour with one objective, to just be there for me.
“If I have these things right, then we can talk further about winning another Tour. Right now, it is a long way away.”
Still, he isn’t giving up hope. Some might have, but he isn’t.
“I do believe it is possible. I don’t know if it is manageable, but do I believe it is possible. Cycling is full of possibilities.”