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Trek Factory Racing manager Luca Guercilena has said that it is premature to label Andy and Fränk Schleck as contenders for overall victory at the 2014 Tour de France but the Italian is confident that they can at least be competitive next July.
While the original Leopard Trek team was built largely around the Tour de France ambitions of the Schleck brothers, the emphasis of the team has shifted in the intervening period following Fränk’s ban for a positive test for Xipamide and Andy's struggles with injury and form in the period since they finished second and third at the 2011 Tour de France.
"There are three or four teams who have devoted more to the Grand Tours, while we're rebuilding. We'll be competitive but it's going to be difficult to be super-competitive because we made different choices on the transfer market to some other teams," Guercilena told Cyclingnews.
"I think that Andy and Fränk themselves can be competitive in a head-to-head with the likes of Froome, Quintana and Contador, but it's premature to say today that we could be capable of going to the Tour to try to win it."
Andy Schleck’s travails over the past two years have been well-documented. A fractured pelvis at the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné ruled him out of that year's Tour de France, and the Luxembourger was short on condition and morale when the 2013 campaign got underway. For 18 months or so, his results read as a litany of abandons and problems but Schleck managed to steady the ship in time for the Tour de France, where he reached Paris in 20th place overall.
"Last winter wasn't ideal, which meant that he began the season trying to make up for lost ground, but he got back to the right motivation and the right way of working from March onwards," Guercilena said.
"We had to increase his training load in order to at least be competitive at a Grand Tour. In the space of four months, he ended up doing work that should have been done in eight, and that meant that he had a dip in form after the Tour."
Better in 2014
Guercilena is hopeful that Schleck's fortunes will improve still further in 2014 with his older brother’s return to competitive action, and he confirmed that there would be no repeat of former manager Johan Bruyneel's ill-fated experiment of 2012, when he insisted that the pair followed largely separate race programmes.
"At the time, we were all in agreement with Bruyneel’s idea, but it really just showed that there were more advantages for both of them in riding together than riding apart," he said.
"In some situations this year, Fränk will race alone as he needs to get back to racing rhythm but beyond that the idea is to put them side by side at the Tour de France in good condition so they can help one another."
"The return of Fränk could be a great advantage for Andy, but real desire is something an athlete has to find for himself. We're putting every possible means at Andy's disposal so that he can again be competitive at the level he should be at."
Horner refused contract
Guercilena's 2013 team boasted a Grand Tour winner in its ranks, in the shape of Chris Horner, who emerged to claim a most surprising overall victory at the Vuelta a España. In spite of that unexpected success, 42-year-old Horner remains without a contract for 2014. Guercilena confirmed that he would have been happy to retain the American's services but said that Trek Factory Racing couldn't match his wage demands during talks after the Vuelta.
"The team made an offer taking various things into consideration. Given the youth-oriented line that we want to follow, the offer clearly wasn't based on him being a winner of the Vuelta, but on his status as an athlete who still offers a certain level of performance. The offer wasn't accepted and we didn't reach an agreement," Guercilena said.
As 2013 draws to a close, Horner's hopes of finding a deal for next season appear to be fading quickly. Even though his asking price has apparently dropped slightly in the intervening period, Horner is running out of potential suitors
"I don't think the problem is with Horner but with the market itself," Guercilena said. "Negotiating a contract in October when five teams have gone under is really difficult, and there are a lot of riders out there without teams or valued below their true worth.
"The laws of the market of two years ago are completely different to those of this year, both in terms of the budgets of teams and the number of teams still in operation. It's probably the case that it’s taken a couple of years for the wider economic crisis to hit cycling in earnest."