After a season of rebuilding his fitness and form, Fränk Schleck hopes to remain integral to success at Trek Factory Racing in 2015 and despite approaching his 35th birthday in April, he has no intentions of slowing down.
Schleck finished 12th overall in last year’s Tour de France and will once again line up for the race as a designated captain for the US-registered team. The Ardennes Classics sit neatly in his spring targets, and with Bauke Mollema joining the team, Trek boast a formidable double act.
"It’s not possible to talk about the results yet for this season but I want to have a strong year and of course the aims are the Ardennes and the Tour," he tells Cyclingnews on the phone from Trek Factory Racing’s training camp in Mallorca.
The call has in fact woken the Luxembourg rider from a post-training siesta and although teammate Bob Jungles is on the opposite bunk in the hotel room, earphones in, music on, Schleck agrees to reminisce over last year and discuss the next 12 months.
"In the second half of the season, we'll see," he says. "In the Ardennes I've done well before though: I've won Amstel and I've been on the podium in Liége, and those races suit me. I hope I can get back on the podium and why not have a go, and try and win. That can be an aim but I really want to figure in those races and have a nice season."
In 2014, Schleck returned to racing after an 18-month hiatus and part suspension after traces of Xipamede were found in a sample at the 2012 Tour de France. His return to racing showed consistency and a handful of solid displays followed but he was unable to regain the form that had seen him truly compete for major honours, as he had done in the 2011 Tour.
"Last year, I felt like I was missing that little bit that would have taken me into more top 10 and top fives places. I was always there but just missed that little bit extra. This year, I’m confident that I can be there and go that little bit better," he tells Cyclingnews.
"I strongly believe that you can’t compensate for a year and a half without racing, with just training. I needed last year to push myself and to come back. You can only do that with race rhythm and I hope that it’s given me that last bit that I need to start fighting for victories."
The Tour de France
At 34, one may argue that Schleck's chances of hitting the top step of the podium will become increasingly difficult as time continues to pass. Yet the former Amstel Gold Race winner and Tour de France third-place finisher argues that he still has plenty of gas in the tank, and that slowing down is not an option.
"A friend of a teammate turned to him a few days ago and said, 'Frank's going to turn 38 or 39 soon, no?', and they assumed that I turned pro with Jens Voigt. But I'm only 34, you know. I'm not that old. I've had a nice career and I've already got some great memories. There have been ups and downs, just like there are in all careers but overall I'm proud of my career. I still love cycling, and I still make the sacrifices like staying away from my family, and if I didn't want to do it anymore I wouldn't."
"But I do it still because I'm still competitive. Last year, I was 12th in the Tour and if I hadn't lost the eight minutes on the cobbles, I would have been in the top 10. I don't think it's going down but lets find out this season. I don't feel like I'm getting tired or that I'm just cruising around. The moment you start winding down is when you turn up to training camps and races, and you don't have the same motivation. That's not the case for me. I'm still training hard."
Schleck plays down talk of rivalry with new recruit Mollema
The recruitment of Bauke Mollema from Belkin over the winter certainly changes the team dynamic at Trek Factory Racing. Mollema has been on the rise for the last few seasons and has moved to the team in order to gain the leadership role of a Tour team. That said, Schleck is also looking to perform in the Tour de France. In recent weeks, both riders have been playing down any talk of rivalry and have instead chosen to focus on how they can compliment each other in a three week race.
Mollema may have the jump on his teammate in terms of time trialling but Schleck has over a decade of Grand Tour experience. He's competed against riders from Lance Armstrong to Haimar Zubeldia [now a teammate], and will be an eager ally come July.
"I've known Bauke for a long time and he's a really cool guy. He always has his feet on the ground and he's easy to be around. How do I see things? Well he's been really strong the last couple of years and he's come here as one of the leaders for the big races," Schleck tells Cyclingnews.
With experience comes the knowledge that if a team isn't pulling in the same direction, results can be affected. Schleck is aware that the Trek Factory team will need to act professionally as well as tactically if they are to succeed in 2015. So as well as putting himself in the services of Mollema, he expects the rest of the team to follow suit. And if another rider turns out to be stronger, the squad will need to rally in that direction too.
"We always need to remember that we have one team. They pay us and we respect that, and they want us to get the best results possible. The most important thing, and it's clear for everyone, is that this team is going to win races. That means if Bauke is the fastest, everyone works for him and I'll be the first to raise my hand to help him."
"That's the same for everyone. If it's Zubeldia who is the fastest, we'll ride for him. If it's me then guys will support me. If it's Bobby Jungles who is sitting next to me right now listening to rap music on his iPhone then we're going to ride for him. That has to be clear."
While Mollema has joined - and improved the team's capabilities in the process- one rider missing from this year's roster in Andy Schleck. The former Tour winner was forced to retire last year after sustaining a serious knee injury at the 2014 Tour de France. Its left an emotional hole, as much as a physical one, at the heart of the team but his older brother Fränk believes that Andy has begun to find peace with his new life away from peloton.
"He's been busy. I can't specifically say what he's been working on but he's been busy with some nice projects. He's had some time away with his family and he's good. Obviously he calls every few days to ask how the team is going, and asks me to say hello to this guy and that guy, and I feel like it's hard for him sometimes. But overall I think he's well. He has a few flashbacks, which is normal, and he's not with the boys but he's in good spirits.”
His brother’s departure frees up a space in hotel rooms at races and, for now, Jungles has stepped in.
"He's the new young guy and we shouldn't compare because everyone is different but he reminds me of Andy sometimes in the way he acts and rides. He's a good guy, apart from the rap music...."