Denies any hint of personal crisis
Andy Schleck admits that the circumstances he is facing this week at the Ardennes is far removed from what is usual, as the RadioShack Leopard rider continues his comeback from a fractured pelvis.
"It's a strange week for me but I'm really, really happy to be here," he told journalists gathered in conversation at the team's hotel in Lanaken. "First of all because I'm back in the peloton and I'm feeling better and better."
The 27-year-old showed he is back on the way up, taking a dig off the front at Flèche Wallonne en route to finishing just his third race of the year from eight starts on Wednesday.
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Schleck stated. "I believe in that. I'm still sitting here facing Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday and it's not an easy race and I'm not 100 per cent. But going in there and not being the leader and hoping for something good - that's hard," the 2009 winner admitted.
Schleck was not about to hide from that fact that he had hoped to be in better form come the Ardennes this week, but by the same token, there was a satisfaction on the steps he had made.
"My comeback, I'm still working on it," he said. "I believe there's a strong headwind, but I also believe that it's going to turn."
Had Schleck made the progression he had hoped, he explained that more of a break following Liège would be on the cards, but instead will restrict himself to two or three days off the bike before getting back to work in order to be in the best form possible for the Tour de France. What level that will be Schleck was not ready to share.
"I'll do the best possible at the Tour and then maybe I can tell you where I stand," he said. "Definitely we're going to see it in the first mountain stages and only then I can tell you how my shape is."
Under the microscope
Such is the spotlight on the best riders within the peloton that Schleck's comeback to racing was always going to be the subject of much analysis: his struggles in races, coupled with rumours of depression and allegations of public drunkenness - which were later discredited - and his brother being suspended only added to the hysteria. Schleck admitted it was a source of frustration.
"It's the price you pay when you're up there where I was," he said. "But yeah, I was surprised how mean people can be sometimes. When I personally see that someone wants to harm me or write bad things about me, I don't understand what I did to these people."
Hesitant for any further discussion surrounding the Munich allegations, Schleck explained that he was disappointed. "It's not the first one and I'm scared it won't be the last story about me. I don't think I need to comment."
He also suggested that speculation regarding him suffering from depression was overwrought.
"Of course, I was not super-happy... of course it's not fun if you can't do your job anymore. But personal crisis... I had the best support at home. At home I'm always happy... I wouldn't call it a personal crisis because cycling is my job and my passion but in the end I always said it's not my life."
But Andy, are you okay?
"You always say about 'problems'," Schleck said. "I feel I'm here talking to a shrink. I don't have 'problems'. I had problems with my hip..."
Schleck said that fighting for position has always been a challenge, but that it's a bit different in the sport these days. The peloton is a changed beast, and there seems to be more at stake, he suggested.
"I've never been as nervous at Amstel as I have been this year," he conceded. "Flèche was also really nervous. There were a lot of crashes and a lot of riders go for points, they need points, and if someone sees a possibility... Even Alberto Contador was riding in the front. Other riders from smaller teams come and take his place and they don't apologise. That's today, but the race is more interesting for the spectators."
A prodigious talent, success came early for the younger Schleck and even long-time teammate Fabian Cancellara recently suggested that perhaps cycling life had previously been too easy. Schleck said that to a certain extent, those suggestions were correct but he's certainly had to fight before. Anonymity in the bunch was not new.
"I started as a professional when I was 19 years-old... nobody knew me," he explained. "Yeah, I was the little brother of Fränk - 'He's a shit-kicker. Don't give him a place.' - but I fight my way up to where I stand."
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