Gunning for greatness

Will 2009 be the year a new champion will be crowned? Many are looking at the Astana team as the big...

An interview with Andy Schleck, January 22, 2009

The names Contador and Armstrong will be on everyone's lips come July and the Tour de France, but there is one rider who might just steal their thunder: Andy Schleck. Twice a Grand Tour's best young rider, he stood atop the Giro d'Italia podium at 21. As Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes found out at the Saxo Bank team camp in Majorca, Schleck the younger is not afraid to meet his destiny.

Will 2009 be the year a new champion will be crowned? Many are looking at the Astana team as the big challengers for the Tour de France, yet Luxembourger Andy Schleck could rewrite the script and spoil their party. Second in his first Grand Tour, arguably the strongest rider in last year's Grande Boucle, the Saxo Bank rider now has the experience to mount a serious challenge in cycling's biggest race.

Schleck is, for many, a future Tour winner. Famed French coach Cyrille Guimard suggested as such, and he is very entitled to his opinion; after all, he's worked with Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon and Lucien Van Impe, who between them won ten editions of the race. Guimard was also heavily involved with the French amateur team Vélo Club Roubaix, where saw Schleck's potential and steered him towards a pro career.

Considering what he's done so far, its easy to think of Schleck as an older rider than he actually is. He's finished second in the Giro d'Italia, fourth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, fifth in the Olympic road race and sixth in the Tour de Suisse. Overall wins in the Flèche du Sud, the mountains classification of the Tour of Britain and white jerseys in the Tour of Italy and France are also on his palmares, as are two stages of the Sachsen Tour and the Luxembourg time trial championship.

"As everyone saw, I am really strong in the climbs. Without being arrogant, I think I have a good engine because I am good over three weeks." - Andy Schleck honestly assesses his performance in the Tour..

Yet he's young enough to go for the white jersey again this year, and is a full two and a half years younger than Alberto Contador.

Last summer Schleck rode the Tour for the first time in his career. He finished twelfth overall, the same position in which he began the race's 10th stage to Hautacam, where he lost any chance of winning the race when he suffered a hunger knock. But by the end of that stage, Schleck had lost a whopping 8'59 to stage winner Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval – Prodir), and spent the rest of the race riding for his team-mates Frank Schleck, his brother, and the eventual winner Carlos Sastre. Even with his domestique duties and that one bad day, he finished just 11'32 behind Sastre in Paris as the best young rider.

"Riding the Tour is the highlight of my season," he told Cyclingnews at the recent Saxo Bank training camp in Majorca. "It was something big; you watch it since you are a kid, and you are suddenly there and you finish it.

"I would have been able to win some stages, but I sacrificed myself... I was there for the team so that is why I did it. But I had the white jersey and I was standing on the podium two times, with the team and the best young rider award. And I think that twelfth place – or eleventh overall [Bernhard Kohl, third, was later found positive -ed] is good. Okay, I think that I could have done more. For sure, I had one black day, the stage to Hautacam. I got the hunger flat there and lost nine minutes...that shouldn't have happened."

But it did, and he was out of the running for 2008. Schleck set about working for the team, yet nevertheless gave the impression that he was stronger than the other riders. He seemed to be toying with them on Alpe d'Huez, riding after attackers at will, and placed third at the line. It was one of two days he highlights as his best in the race.

"I had a really good day when we did the Col de Bonette, the stage were [Cyril] Dessel won," he said. "They kept telling me to slow down. I saw the others like Valverde and Cadel [Evans], and they were suffering, while I was pulling the whole climb.

"I was feeling very good there and on the Alpe I was also so strong. But it's all 'what if', wondering how things could have gone that day. For example, if I was there alone without a team, I would have attacked and seen how far I could go."

Although he eventually ended up in that helper role, Schleck did have one benefit; he went into the race with very little pressure to succeed. Of course he wanted to do as well as possible, especially after finishing a close second in the 2007 Giro, but with two other big GC riders plus Fabian Cancellara it meant that the team's success or failure didn't depend on him.

"I think that the Tour we did last year was an example of how you should ride it," he said, speaking about their tactics. "We had Frank in yellow, I was still there until Hautacam but then I lost time. Then we had Frank and Carlos, and Frank sacrificed himself for Carlos on the Alpe. He basically gave him his jersey.

"In the meeting beforehand we said that we [someone from the team] wanted to win the stage, to have the jersey for Frank or for Carlos. We waited until the Alpe, then Carlos attacked. He was the first one gone and it worked out that the stage was for him, and also the jersey. In the end everyone saw it was good, because he did a strong time trial. But I finished third on that stage and would have loved to have won there, actually."

Fact is, he still rode a superb race. Hautacam cost him a place in the top ten, but he achieved a lot in those three weeks and also learned much. What was the most important lesson? "To eat!" he responds, laughing. "To eat and drink properly. I learned a lot, for sure. I think it was important that I saw it first, and then in the future I can go there to be a big contender. Maybe not next year, maybe not in two years, but someday I will be there to win it.

"It's very different to the Giro. I did that the year before. You can't say that race is easier, as such, but there is less pressure, less media. After a Giro stage you could ride to your bus, whereas in the Tour you were standing there at the end, doing interviews and everything. It is a lot bigger, and that is what makes the race harder. Also, so too the fact that it is on TV from kilometre zero... riders who know that they can perhaps not win in the finale try to go in the breakaway early on. In the Giro that situation is a little more calm."

Missing one thing: victory

Of course, last year wasn't just about the Tour. He pinpoints his fourth place in Liège-Bastogne-Liège as another highlight, saying that being in the final shakeup with his brother Frank [who finished third] was emotionally rewarding.

"That was something special. I don't know if it ever happened that there were two brothers in a final of a race like that. Maybe a long time ago – I don't remember it happening. But it was something really special and cool.

"As regards the rest of the season, I was strong. But a lot of times I didn't [capitalize]...I did a lot of big races, and I am a little bit sad that I didn't have a victory. But it is not easy when you have the Tour as a goal, the Classics as a goal and the Olympics as a big goal.

"I was a little bit unlucky. For sure I was stronger than the year before, but I just didn't get a big victory. Also in the big races I sacrificed myself for the others...but maybe this year it is going to change. Since I started racing I have always made progression each season, so we will see."

He is clear about his attributes. "As everyone saw, I am really strong in the climbs. Without being arrogant, I think I have a good engine because I am good over three weeks. I never have problems, I am not sick... also even in the winter at home, I am never sick. I am just a healthy boy [laughs].

"Mentally, I think I am not that different from Frank. To do what we are doing, you need a strong character. You also need a certain discipline in your life, and to follow that. Okay, Frank is more disciplined than I am....but I think that he is also sometimes more stressed. Most of the time I take things easy. If I am training well and I know I am good shape, then I am probably not going to be worried about things."

Schleck said that he was satisfied with his form so far this year. He'll have built on it between now and when he will make his season debut in the Tour of California, before he returns to Europe for Paris-Nice, Milan-Sanremo and Criterium Internationale. After that the Tour du Pays Basques beckons as final preparation his first season target, the trio of Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Preparing for the Tour will require a bit of assessing at that point. As things stand, he expects to miss the Tour of Romandie, and ride the Tour of Luxembourg and the Tour de Suisse as preparation for the Tour de France.

The Armstrong/Astana factor

Like it or not, Lance Armstrong's return has dominated the headlines in recent months. The reaction has been varied, including that within the peloton, but Schleck is sure about where he stands on the issue.

"I really appreciate it. I think that it is his decision to make," he stated. "Many people say it is bad for cycling, but why should it be bad? I think it is good for the sport. I think he is doing it for proper reasons. He is saying that he is doing it for his cancer foundation. ... I think if I could do anything like that, I would do it immediately.

"I am actually looking forward to racing with him. For sure there are different views within the peloton. But this is my view. I was fourteen when he won his first Tour . ... I followed that a little. Then in my first year I raced against him in the Tour of Georgia. That was already something pretty big.

"Look, I am like the guy next door," he continued. "I don't have a big head, and people who have that are not my friends, anyway. So that is why I still have it in mind, 'Lance – f**king hell!" Now I can ride against him, actually compete against him. It is something great for me."

Schleck feels that it is not a given that the Texan will find Tour-winning form. "I don't say now he is going to win. That I don't say. It is not going to be easy for him, but I am sure he knows that. If he does the Tour, I think he will be 100%. It is possible that he will be there for his team, too."

Cyclingnews put it to him that the strength of the Astana team meant that Saxo Bank could perhaps sit back, make their rivals do all of the early running. But Schleck initially seemed to take that as a questioning of his own team's abilities, and went to length to stress the opposite.

"I feel that next year in the Tour, we will have Frank and I for the overall. We will also be going there with a really strong team," he countered, a little defensively. "I think the team this year is going to be even better than last year. Carlos was strong in the mountains, but he will not be there. Now we can take someone else who can ride on the flat, for example. Who can do three or four kilometres of the climb really hard, so our team is not going to be weaker. It is going to be stronger next year."

He also stresses that nothing is guaranteed, as regards the Kazakhstan-backed squad being favourites. "Astana will also go there to win the Tour. They have Contador who is probably right now the strongest rider in the peloton...he was last year, anyway.

"He has that on his shoulders and he will also know how to stand up in the Tour. However he is only human, and it could happen that he is dropped one day and loses five or six minutes. Or he could have a crash in the first week and lose the same amount of time. Then it will be us who have to take responsibility."

Either way, Schleck will once again benefit from less pressure than the other riders. Many fans – particularly those in Luxembourg – will look at his performances thus far in Grand Tours and dream big, but he can afford to relax and take it as it comes. He won't turn 24 until next June, after all, and very much has time on his side.

Related articles:

Tour 2008: A three-pronged attack
Andy Schleck: Changing Focus
Giro 2007: The rise of another Schleck

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