At this stage in his career, Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) is well-versed in downplaying concerns about his condition in the weeks leading up to the Tour de France and on Friday, he duly looked to put a brave face on another disappointing day on stage 5 of the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Schleck reached Rumilly almost 14 minutes down on stage winner Arthur Vichot (FDJ-BigMat) after he was distanced over the top of the day’s great difficulty, the Col du Grand Colombier. Unlike his nondescript showings earlier in the race, however, on this occasion there was at least some mitigation for Schleck’s display given injuries he sustained in his heavy fall in Thursday’s time trial.
While Schleck broke no bones in that crash, he did suffer a heavy blow to his ribcage and right side, and said that he felt the effects of his road rash every time he tried to climb out of the saddle.
“I didn’t have too many problems when I was riding in the mountains – I had my place in the peloton and I was able to ride along and I didn’t suffer too much,” Schleck said from the steps of his team bus afterwards. “The problem was after corners, when I had to get out of the saddle and accelerate. So I ended up doing more or less 90% of the stage sitting down.”
Asked if he had considered abandoning the Dauphiné in the wake of his accident, Schleck admitted that he had already deprived himself of too many racing days this season. Illness forced him out of Paris-Nice after just two stages and he subsequently withdrew from the Volta a Catalunya.
“I’ve abandoned too many times this year already,” he said with a half smile. “Earlier in the season, you can ask yourself what’s the best option. But now the Tour is in four weeks so it’s a case of no turning back. You have to go straight on.”
Given his litany of seemingly miraculous resurrections of condition in the final throes of his Tour preparation, Schleck prefers to ignore the perennial wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies analysis of his June performances.
“The most important thing is that I’m getting the kilometres in and doing some mountains,” he insisted. “It’s also good that I didn’t break anything yesterday and I rode the stage today. It wasn’t possible to do something today. Maybe it will be better tomorrow, but in any case I’m happy to be here.”
Saturday sees the Dauphiné peloton tackle the Col de Joux Plane en route to Morzine. With six ascents on the menu, it’s the toughest stage of the race, and Schleck acknowledged that he would like to have at least one day rubbing shoulders with his Tour rivals in the mountains.
“If I get to the foot of the Joux Plane near the front and without the same problems that I had today then I’ll try to stay with the best,” he said.
The best so far have been Cadel Evans (BMC) and Bradley Wiggins (Sky) – the Tour champion and the man thought most likely to steal his crown come July. Perhaps in a reflection his own more gradual approach to the Tour, Schleck tipped Wiggins for Dauphiné victory but wondered if the Briton had reached top form too soon ahead of the Tour.
“From what I saw of the time trial yesterday, Evans isn’t 100 per cent yet, whereas Wiggins is on top of his game. I don’t think there’s anyone who can beat Wiggins here given the way that he’s riding,” Schleck said, before casting a cautious eye towards July.
“It’s very early though, so I still think Evans is the favourite for the Tour. Maybe it’s Wiggins on paper at the moment, but I think there’s a long way to go. I don’t think Wiggins can go any faster in a time trial than he did yesterday. It’s very early.”
Almost 30 minutes down in 129th place, Schleck will certainly be hoping that is the case.