Fränk Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) is confident that he will have few problems in readapting to life in the peloton when he returns to action at the Santos Tour Down Under next week, following a year and a half on the sidelines.
The Luxembourg rider has not raced since he tested positive for the diuretic Xipamide during the 2012 Tour de France.
“I cannot tell you today how I will be, but I think I will be alright in the peloton,” Schleck told reporters at the Trek Factory Racing presentation in Roubaix on Friday.
“Maybe it’s going to feel strange the first couple of days but I’m confident I’m going to feel ok. It’s not like I’m a useless chicken in the peloton or on the bike. By that I mean it’s not like I’m useless at handling the bike.”
Schleck flew to Adelaide on Saturday ahead of the Tour Down Under, which gets underway on January 19. It marks his first appearance in the Australian race and his earliest start to the racing season since he lined up at the Tour de San Luis six years ago during his time at CSC. However the 33-year-old said that he was keen to start his 2014 campaign as soon as possible.
“I love riding my bike. I love cycling,” he said. “I kept training, I’m not done yet. As soon as we get out on the road, I want to show that I’m not done yet.”
Schleck’s lay-off was lengthened by a further six months in the second half of 2013 when he was unable to agree terms with the Flavio Becca-owned RadioShack-Trek squad. He claimed, however, that his motivation did not wane thanks in part to the fact that he had been handed a one-year ban rather than the maximum two-year penalty.
“I kept motivated because we could establish that the UCI and WADA did not see it as a doping case so I was looking forward to this,” Schleck said. “I kept the motivation because I had a lot of support also from Trek to be in this team.”
After the novel start in the Antipodes, Schleck’s 2014 season will follow a familiar pattern, as he tackles the year in three distinct parts alongside his brother Andy. The Ardennes classics comprise their first major objective and the Tour de France will be the centre-piece of their season, while the world championships and Tour of Lombardy are also a significant afterthought. “But that’s a long way away yet,” he added.
Andy Schleck looks to the Tour
For his part, Andy Schleck welcomed the return of his older brother to his side. A combination of injury, suspension and former manager Johan Bruyneel’s policy of keeping the brothers on separate racing programmes means that they have barely raced together since the 2011 Tour de France and not at all since the 2012 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“Being with Fränk again, together doing the races before the Tour de France, feels good and it feels right. I believe we just have to go in fully motivated and then take it like it is,” Andy Schleck said.
In spite of the lengthy time trial to Périgueux on the penultimate day, Schleck acknowledged that the Tour de France route is broadly suited to his characteristics, although he was reticent to measure his chances against those of Chris Froome, Alberto Contador et al at this early juncture.
“It’s a good parcours and it suits us climbers pretty well. That includes Froome, but it also includes Contador, Rodriguez and many, many more,” he said.
“We don’t know now how strong the others are going to be in July and we also don’t know how strong we’re going to be in July, so I think it’s early to answer that question. You can ask it, but it’s early to answer it in a correct way, so I just give you a quite basic answer on that, I’m sorry.”
After struggling with injury and motivation through 2012 and early 2013, the younger of the Schleck brothers – now 28 – will hope that his 20th place finish at last year’s Tour signaled the beginning of a return to his former levels. Certainly, he seemed optimistic about his prospects when a Belgian television crew later asked him how it felt to be back.
“I can’t say I’m back until I’ve had a good result,” Schleck said, adding: “I feel pretty good and motivated. I think it finally falls in place again and we’ll see how it goes again.”