Ever since he finished second to Cadel Evans in the 2011 Tour de France, Andy Schleck (RadioShack Leopard) has been a shadow of the aggressive climbing specialist who has shone in the Grand Tours since placing second overall in his debut at the Giro d'Italia in 2007. First there was the drama of on-the-record disagreements with former team manager Johan Bruyneel over having Kim Andersen direct in the Tour de France, and then the argument became moot after Schleck crashed in the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné and broke his pelvis.
Dogged by the media for failing to finish race after race since his comeback, practically written off as too fragile, Schleck finally struck back on the third stage of the Tour of California, attacking after the day's first climb and helping to pull a strong group clear on a wickedly fast descent.
When asked what inspired his attack, Schleck was honest: "My bad performance yesterday." He cramped at the base of the final climb on stage 2 and lost 9:22 on race leader Janier Acevedo, but the team was determined to make up for it today. They first sent Jens Voigt on the attack from kilometer zero, and then pulled away a large group with most of the team present.
"It was clear it was going to be a hard day from the start on with the crosswind. In the start we were 20 guys in the front and there were four from our team up there, so that was a pretty OK situation for us, the only problem was that [Matthew] Busche was not there. That's why we didn't insist to ride there."
The group was pulled back at the first mountain sprint, but rather than descend, the road undulated then kicked up again on a short, steep pitch before the long plunge into the canyon. It was here that Schleck decided to test his legs. "Everyone was a little in the red, and [Lieuwe] Westra joined me in the end of the climb."
Also coming along was Chad Beyer (Champion System) and Gavin Mannion (Bontrager), and four was the magic number for the third stage in a row.
"We had really good cooperation, the young guy from Bontrager was also good, because it was same sponsor, so we consider them a development team sort of, like Leopard. And of course the strongest by far was Westra, we cooperated good all day."
It was clear the quartet were working hard, riders getting out of the saddle on every rise as they battled the wind and roads that undulated up and down all day. Despite the hard work, they got the gap to four and a half minutes but could gain no more time.
"We saw that they didn't give us more than four and a half minutes, so we knew it would be a mission impossible. But then after the sprint we decided to go really hard in those next 30km. I think we surprised them a little bit in the back, because they didn't gain any time back. We gained a little time on them instead. In the end it was also good training."
Schleck said before the race that he wasn't putting any pressure on himself to get a result, but for the first time in almost two years he was displaying his trademark grimace that closely resembles a mischievous grin as he attacked the climbs. He was pushing hard, and he looked strong.
"On the first [climb] I didn't feel really good. The last one I felt good and I actually wanted to keep going, it was a hard climb, but it made no sense to go alone from there with the headwind. We didn't even get far with three guys pulling, and then alone, it didn't make sense. But there are more days coming for a breakaway."
Looking ahead to the rest of the week, can we expect to see Schleck going for a stage win on Diablo? He shook his head, unsure. "I said yesterday I wanted to try my best, but I was really bad in the heat. Tomrorow is 100 per cent sure a sprint, then the time trial, then I think Mt. Diablo of course is going to be a test for us."