He has been out of the sport for well over a year, but Fränk Schleck is confident that he can rebuild his career at Trek Factory Racing in 2014. The 33-year-old missed a season of competition after the banned diuretic, Xipamide, was found in his system during the 2012 Tour de France, and with his suspension drawing to close this year, he was unceremoniously fired by former boss, Flavio Becca.
The dismissal meant that he missed the chance of riding again in 2013. However, with a new set-up at Trek and his younger brother in a similar position of striving to return to the top of the sport, Frank Schleck is, in his own words, "looking to turn the page".
In the lobby of the Albir Playa Hotel on outskirts of Benidorm, both Schlecks sat down for their first joint press conferences since 2012.
"It was a very hard year for me. I fought a lot, and I had a lot of negative injustice. However UCI, WADA and the Luxembourg authorities all accepted that my case had nothing to do with doping and that was very important for me and my family," Frank Schleck said.
"You have that anger, then you’re hungry and you’re motivated. Now we have this new beautiful project. We have new kits, new bikes and it feels like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one," he said.
"We never did anything wrong, and now I just want to stay focused and ride my bike as fast as possible."
Sacked by Becca
Schleck’s suspension ended this summer, and he was due to ride the Vuelta a Espana later in the season for RadioShack Leopard. However with team owner Flavio Becca already struggling to pay riders’ salaries, and with plans afoot to leave the sport, the team’s financial backer decided to terminate Schleck’s contract. The timing of the dismissal may have seemed odd given that Becca had originally joined cycling in order to set up a Luxembourg franchise, but with Johan Bruyneel having won a case in which Becca had to pay back a substantial loan and with the team set to fold, Becca appeared desperate to cut costs where he could.
"Eight days before the end of my suspension, my contract was terminated," Schleck said.
"I was training for the Vuelta [a Espana], and I was ready and fit. That surprise came and really hit me."
There followed speculation that Schleck would see out the year with another team but he denied that was an option, instead wishing to draw a line on matter. However, he did confirm that he had entrusted lawyers to settle the matter with Becca.
"I’m trying to focus on the future now, and I’ve turned that page. The rest will be done by other people like my lawyers who will take care of that."
"I was ready to do the Vuelta. I was riding the recon and had seen most of the mountain stages. I was sharp, maybe 61 kilos, but please respect that I’m turning that page and other people are taking care of that."
"We don’t have a problem with Mr. Becca. Everything is fine. We might disagree on the termination of the contract as I told you, but let's turn that page and focus on the future."
Racing into 2014
With RadioShack and Leopard now consigned to the record books of cycling, both Schlecks have the heavy tasks to trying to resurrect their careers. In a roll of the dice designed to inspire a repetition of their success in the past, both brothers will build their seasons around the Ardennes Classics, before a double-headed tilt at the Tour de France.
"The goals will be the Ardennes. They’re close to our home country, they’re hard racing and we just love these races. We’ve done well there and that’s the first goal. Then we’re setting ourselves for the Tour de France because we’ve not said our final words there. We want to do well there," Frank Schleck said.
The last time both brothers started the Tour together was in 2011 with the sibling riders making the podium in second and third overall. Since then, Sky have won back-to-back races with a formula of margin gains, backed up by a budget that dwarfs Trek’s coffers. Despite the obstacles, Frank Schleck believes that he and his brother can both be more than competitive once their main objectives roll around.
"I believe we can win them. In the Ardennes, I was almost in the top 10 every year and in the Tour, we’re back together and we can do amazing things and that’s what we’re aiming for."
"We’ve got our dreams and that’s why we’re riding. The day I stop dreaming about my goals, please shoot me off the bike. If you finish in the top 10 at the Tour four times, Andy three times second, that’s got to be the goal. If you’ve been there once, it should be the dream, the goal to be there again. We’re not saying it’s going to happen, but it has to be the goal."
Trek at least offers the brothers a settled environment. Although he was keen to dismiss the subject or the controversy, both Schlecks failed to build a rapport with Johan Bruyneel in 2012. They publicly defied him over matters concerning race programmes and the role of Kim Andersen, and while Bruyneel later admitted that he deserved some of the blame, he also squarely criticised the brothers, saying that there was a "huge imbalance" between his and their philosophies.
"It’s our job to be professional, and we followed the plan of the team. We followed that and we lived it. We accepted it, trained and raced the way the team told us to do. It's not a secret to say that we like to race together."
"Compared to what everyone thinks, I don’t have a problem with Johan Bruyneel. Neither does Andy and neither does the team. He was the boss and we accepted what he said. He was the manager and if he decided to split us up, we had to follow him and do what he said. He had other views and we accepted them."
With Bruyneel out of the picture and facing the prospect of a life-time ban, the Schlecks certainly head into 2014 with the most secure footing they’ve had in several seasons. There is a steady ship with Luca Guercilena at the helm and Andy Schleck riding pain free after his major 2012 crash. The team’s finances are smaller yet more secure but come January, when Frank Schleck lines up for his first race of the season at the Tour Down Under, the time for talking will be over.