Wearing race number one
CSC rider Fränk Schleck took his first major victory in last year's Amstel Gold. He spoke to Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes and several other journalists the day before he attempts to defend that title.
2006 was a breakthrough season for Fränk Schleck, who went from his status as a highly promising rider to a proven winner. Prior to his 26th birthday the only major victory to his credit was the Luxembourg national road race championship. However, he came of age as a rider when he triumphed in the Amstel Gold Race by exploding out of the front group with less than ten kilometres to go and soloing to a 22 second winning margin over Steffen Wesemann. Perennial race favourite Michael Boogerd was 46 seconds back in third.
Confidence boosted, Schleck then went on to win the Alpe d'Huez stage of the Tour de France, dropping no less than 2004 Giro d'Italia winner Damiano Cunego on the final push to the line. He also placed highly in other ProTour events, such as fourth in Flèche Wallonne, sixth in the Tour de Suisse, seventh in Liège-Bastogne–Liège, and seventh again in the Giro di Lombardia, finishing third overall in the prestigious series.
"It is the Amstel Gold, a race that you have to do by being in the front for 260 kilometres." - Schleck on Amstel race tactics.
He's back at the Amstel now, and today will attempt to defend his title in the monstrously tough Classic. Despite the pressure, Schleck was in a relaxed mood the day before the race, talking at length to the press at the CSC team hotel in Lanaken, near Maastricht. He said he was in good shape and looking forward to the event.
"I think I was good," he stated, when asked how he felt at the Vuelta a País Vasco earlier this month (he finished eighth overall). "It was a good course and there were some very hard climbs. Cobo won and that means he was the best at climbing, but I was always there, always with the big leaders. I felt pretty good.
"Last year I crashed in Pays Basques and spent two days in hospital, so I did not complete the race. This time round, things are a little different. I finished the race, then I did another one on Sunday and I was always in the front there. I took two days rest, then on Wednesday I did some very hard training. I covered 220 kilometres and I was feeling very good. I was tired afterwards, but I was not [totally] finished. I was all right."
All eyes will be on the Luxemburger today, not least for the fact that he will have dossard number 1 as last year's winner. He is going to be under unaccustomed pressure as defending champion – something he only previous experienced in the Luxembourg road race championships.
"I got loads of SMS messages last week. The first question my friend asked me is 'ah, you will be starting with number-one, will that be the first time in your career?' Yes, it will be the first time in my career, and I only hope it is not the last one! The pressure is on.
"As regards tactics, it is straightforward," he said. "It is the Amstel Gold, a race that you have to do by being in the front for 260 kilometres. Whether there is rain or sunshine, it doesn't matter - you have to race at the front. Tomorrow, the team will be very important, especially in controlling others. That will not be easy, especially on the roads that we use. I expect a very hard race, and then the final, of course, it will start with the Kruisberg, then after on the Eyserbosweg, where we expect Michael [Boogerd] to attack. Everybody expects him to go there, it is his climb."
He's not reluctant to say that he is aiming for the very top spot of the podium. "Of course, of course. I also started Pays Basque with the ambition to win it. But the only chance I really have is coming alone to the finish like last year. That would be the perfect scenario. I don't know if I can win. Nobody knows that, I don't know if I am strong enough. I just know that I have done everything right in my preparation, in my training; I have good form.
"But there perhaps some riders are stronger than I am and I am okay with that. I just don't want it to be a situation where after the race I could finish up 11th or 12th, or fifth, and tell myself that I should have done something different in my training.
"I have done everything right. I don't know if I can win, but I will be there in the final. We will see what is going to happen."
Clash of the Titans?
Amstel Gold is a very selective race and with climbs such as the Cauberg part of the parcours, it is extremely unlikely that there will be a 'lucky' winner. Whoever crosses the line first will thoroughly deserve to do so. There is no room to hide on this course.
The fact that things are selective means that the list of potential rivals is narrowed down. Who does he feel will be the most dangerous of those?
"I think the main guys will be Boogerd, Rebellin, Sánchez, Valverde, Schumacher, if he is ready - he had a problem after his crash in Pays Basques," he replied. "He was good in Pays Basques and is a type of rider who could do very well in these races."
Valverde won Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year, and has made it clear that he is targeting Amstel Gold this time round. Rather than fixating about winning Liège again, the Spaniard told Cyclingnews earlier this year that he would prefer to take the Dutch race. He went into it hoping for success last season but experienced a bit of hunger knock in the closing kilometres and finished 23rd.
The Caisse d'Epargne rider is very explosive; able to climb well, he also has a very powerful sprint. Unlike Schleck, this means that he will not be worried about reaching the finish in a small group. However one thing which the Spaniard has said would concern him is if he hit the final kilometre with compatriot Oscar Freire for company. Does Schleck feel that the triple world champion is a threat?
"Well, tomorrow will be sunshine... that may help," he replied. "If he is there at the finish, he will be dangerous. Valverde is totally right, he has made a good analysis - if Freire is there at the Cauberg it is going to be hard to beat him. But then again, I don't know how Rabobank is going to ride tomorrow.
"It is the last season for Michael - if they want to make it a race for Michael, they will have to make it a very hard one. We do have to say that Freire is very dangerous, of course. But we have to see how they are going to race and I believe that after 150 kilometres, we will know who they are going to ride for."
CSC is defending champions but he doesn't expect his squad to control things. "I think there are a few teams who will have to take responsibility for their leaders. Of course, Rabobank will have to take responsibility [being Dutch]. I think we have to take some responsibility and maybe Caisse d'Epargne, Gerolsteiner too. Tomorrow will be very interesting.
"For Rabobank, the tactics are clear. As I mentioned, they have Freire and they have Michael. It is his last season and he will be super-motivated. So they need a break with Boogerd, or they need a big group coming together with Freire, in order to win the race."
CSC's own plan is to back Schleck and Karsten Kroon, with the ever-aggressive Duracell Bunny Jens Voigt as their wildcard for success. One probable tactic would be for them to fire Voigt off in an early break; recent wins in Critérium International and the País Vasco have further reinforced that he can win from a long way out, and having him up the road will enable Schleck and Kroon to wait until later before digging in.
He is happy with those who will be by his side. "If we go back to last weekend, to Paris-Roubaix, we saw a very, very nice team race [Stuart O'Grady won]. For me last year, Karsten Kroon was one of the most important riders on the team. He was so unbelievably strong and so motivated on home ground - he knows those roads so well that he can practically do them with closed eyes.
"I would really love to help him to win the race, too. If it comes about tomorrow that I can help him to win the race, I will do it. Because he needs to get something back, too. I would love to give him something.
"Last year Karsten was incredible, he did an amazing job. First of all he had the courage and the strength to make the selection. That was the first big thing he did. And then later on he was an incredible teammate. I still believe that without him, I would not have won last year. That is for sure. So, if I can help him tomorrow, if I can give him something back, I will do it. He is a rider with so much talent. I also think he deserves more with luck, he could have won many, many more races already."
Kroon lives just a stone's throw from the start in Maastricht and will be ultra-motivated in what he will see as his home race. Schleck says that he has been working very hard in the run-up to the Classic. "He crashed in California but kept working hard. The way he was training in Majorca after that, with a broken rib and everything... it is crazy what he did, training on his own. He deserves a big win.
"As for Jens, we have seen him winning the Critérium International, and he won a stage in Pays Basques too. So he is in good shape. Of course, I think we have to keep him in mind as well [as a potential winner]. We have seen him getting second in Liège as well, so that means he is able to do a very good race tomorrow.
"Tactically, we need to make the race hard; I want the race to be hard tomorrow."
Coming of age
The fact that Schleck is starting as defending champion – and is clearly very fired up to do well – shows that he is embracing the responsibility of a winner. He's had a very solid career thus far but up until his win here twelve months ago, had just that Luxembourg road race title to his credit as an out-and-out win.
It is clear that he is gaining in confidence. "I feel strong. I believe that I have made progression," he stated. "That said, last year I finished fifth in Paris-Nice and this year I finished eighth there. So you could perhaps say that I am not as strong as last year [going by races], but you can't judge it like that. Maybe I am going to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège [instead]. I could do some races and be in the same form, or maybe I could win another race without being as strong as last year.
"It is hard to say how things will turn out. But I believe in myself that I have gotten stronger. And for sure I became stronger in my mentality, in my head."
"I have been riding pretty well since the start of the season. I started with Valencia and I was third, then Paris-Nice where I was top 10, then Pays Basques. I was very good in Milan-Sanremo and got a top 10 in the Critérium International. So I didn't change anything compared to last year. It worked out well... I had a super season, so why should I change anything?
"I have done things largely the same. I will just take a break after these races and then I will be preparing for the Tour. We will go and try to see some of the climbs from the race."
Speaking of the Tour de France, he will clearly be doing a lot of long climbs in preparation for the mountain stages there. Given that the hills are shorter and sharper here in the Amstel Gold, does he change his training to take account of this, to improve his explosiveness?
"Well, I have been racing so much," he replies. "So I don't really have to train any more. That is the good thing about racing – that and the fact that it is all for free, the whole week is free, you don't spend any money! Everything is done - you get your laundry done, you can go to your room and relax - it is fun, racing, it is cool. When I leave home, it is like "hey, I am going on holiday," he smiled.
Schleck clearly enjoys his job, and also seems to have found the right balance between being determined, wanting to win, and turning the pressure into something positive. He will do all he can to cross the finish line first again, but knows that he has a second chance at a Classic victory if things don't go to plan.
"The number one priority is Amstel and Liège. I would love to win Amstel again," he stated, with some conviction. "But okay, I won Amstel once, it would be nice to get Liège. I don't want to make a priority between them, I don't want to do that. I have already won the Amstel, so why not Liège?
"I think it is possible to do it, to win here. Last year I had done well in some races such as taking fifth in Paris-Nice. The other riders knew exactly who I was, but maybe they didn't think I could make it. This time, it will be much, much harder than last year to get the win. But we will see, we will see. It is not going to be easy."
Amstel Gold was the first big win last year, but he also raised his arms on Alpe d'Huez, winning on top of one of the most famous climbs in cycling. How did that compare to his Classic victory?
"Well, journalists always ask me what was the difference between winning Amstel and at Alpe d'Huez," he said. "For me, Amstel Gold was a much, much more intensive feeling than Alpe d'Huez.
"There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, I had a bad crash at Pays Basques just before and I was totally broken down. I was also always finishing in the top 10 but never had a win. Then I came to Amstel and won here. My family and my team motivated me, and finally it turned out that I could give them something back. It was much, much more emotional for me."
It made a big difference to his mentality but, refreshingly, he stressed that some things must stay the same. That shows he has got his feet on the ground. "As a rider I changed a lot. My head and my morale got stronger, everything got stronger. At least after that race I believed that I was a good rider - before, I never thought that I would be a good one.
"Yet I really hope that for me as a person, it didn't change anything. I always want to stay the same person as before. It doesn't matter where I am going to go and what I am going to do, I really hope that I remain the same person, a normal human being who likes riding his bike. I'm just one who is lucky enough to have some talent."