“Why do I love cycling? It’s about being there, it’s about having a goal, it’s about winning a race, or suffering in the final and no matter what comes at you it’s about finishing with nothing left so that when you cross the line you can be satisfied and proud of what you’ve done. That’s what I love about cycling.”
It may come as a surprise that Andy Schleck still has any love for the sport whatsoever. After all, he’s seen his form and results nose-dive in recent years, his brother fight a positive test and the whole Leopard team that was built around him turn from a dream into a nightmare.
In the last two years it has been one knock after the other, a steady stream of disappointment for a rider who in 2007 and 2008 looked like becoming the star of his generation. That trajectory seemed to be on track with podium places in grand tours, a win in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and even a Tour de France title - albeit in less than glorious circumstances - but since his jaw-dropping performance on Galibier in 2011 Andy Schleck has suffered.
Yet on the eve of this year’s Tour de France, something is different and the 29-year-old has things he’s spent the last two years struggling to find: balance and happiness.
Come Tuesday afternoon he will kiss his partner Jil and his baby son Teo goodbye and head to Leeds to join up with his Trek Factory Racing teammates ahead of the Tour de France. Estimations are rightly low and the pressure is on other riders.
“I go into the Tour and I’m not setting my ambitions too high,” Schleck tells Cyclingnews.
“I’ll see where I stand at the end of the race but I’m going there to be good on the climbs, to help Haimer Zubeldia and my brother Fränk, and then we’ll see. Since Suisse I’ve been tired. It was a hard race, harder than before and since I’ve been home I’ve slowly built up training again.”
Schleck goes on to talk about the work he has done in training behind the scooter: hour after hour hunched behind the moto as he replicates race-pace and the intensity comes across in the way he describes his training sessions but after every few words there is pause as Schleck check on his young son.
“Right now, what makes me the happiest is my son,” Schleck says without prompt.
“He’s lying here and smiling up at me. That makes me happy. I thought that being a father would be beautiful but it’s actually even better than that.”
“This little guy smiles up at me and it’s hard to leave races for that,” he adds with a sigh.
“I know I’ll go to the Tour and when I get back he’ll have grown so much. I can see him on Skype and that’s great but I’m scared the little guy will forget about me. He’s only four months but he’s learning all the time.”
If anyone has been forced to learn and adapt in recent years it’s Schleck. Back in 2007 Procycling adorned their front cover with a picture of Schleck racing at the Giro with the sub-head “Destiny: Tour de France Domination.”
However in the last two years, the Luxembourg rider has stuttered and failed to deliver. The consensus points to his crash in the 2012 Dauphiné and broken sacrum as the beginning of his troubles but in truth the wheels began to fall off over six months earlier when Flavio Becca ended Brian Nygaard’s stay of execution and Leopard and replaced him with Johan Bruyneel.
The Schlecks had left Bjarne Riis’ Saxo Bank utopia in order to forge their own path and Bruyneel’s appointment was a slap in the face to both their authority and results. Tension was already in the air at the team’s presentation with Bruyneel attempting to call the shots by creating uncertainly over the brothers’ race programmes and essentially trying to stamp his authority on what he felt was a sibling pair that lacked direction. Kim Andersen, it was felt, gave in to the Schlecks too much and what they needed was a firmer hand. Bruyneel decided that the Dane would not be in the team car at the Tour de France.
By the time Liège-Bastogne-Liège came around that April, the situation was farcical. With Kim Andersen the pawn, the Schlecks openly challenged Bruyneel by stating that their long-term mentor would be at the Tour. Bruyneel had other ideas and whisked Fränk to the Giro. Even without Schleck’s crash the year was a disaster. Fränk quit the Giro with a week to go, Andy missed the Tour and struggled to regain fitness and on top of that, Fränk tested positive for the diurectic Xipamide at the Tour.
“Johan didn’t want to change,” Schleck says when asked about that period. He admits, after a moment of deliberation, that Riis was the boss that drew the best out of him as a rider, before adding: “Johan was our boss and we had to respect but of course we were not happy with the situation but that was the situation and you can’t have everything you want, but I actually had a lot of respect for him when he came into the team.
"We had different ideas but I also had that situation with Bjarne too so it could have worked. I’ve always been open to learning and I don’t have one way of thinking all the time. I was okay with Johan being there until his case with USADA exploded. Then it had to change.”
Bruyneel’s demise finally arrived when USADA published their damning charges in October of 2012 but Schleck had problems of his own to deal with.
On the bike things weren’t working. His form was lousy and his motivation appeared even worse. Even his new team boss for 2013, Luca Guercilena, began to question Schleck’s mental application.
Rumours began to circlulate: he was finished, washed up, and no longer had the hunger and drive to be a leader, and, to top it off, he allegedly had a drinking problem. Race after race ticked by and each one became a depressing reflection of the last as he struggled to keep up. He would be dropped when he shouldn’t have been, his time trialling managed to get even worse but it was on the climbs where he looked a shadow of the rider he was. It took him nearly a year to finish a stage race longer than two days.
There’s a long pause when Schleck is asked to talk about his 2012 and 2013 seasons and the mental anguish he went through.
“At night you sit there in your room and you know that you have to go through it all over again the day after. Then it’s onto the next race and it’s the same scenario again and again and at night when it’s just you and your thoughts and no one to talk with you lie there and you ask yourself ‘what’s wrong with you?’
“It was all going good, my career. It was all going good but it can’t always be like that. It can’t always carry on but throughout all of it I always had my feet on the ground. Even when I had super good results I always came home and reminded myself of who I was and of the person I wanted to stay as but at some point all the good luck I had went away.”
“I don’t know why that happened but that’s just life. I went from one crash to the next, one injury to the next and yes there was a lack of motivation at points. I was training and training and then I was going to races and I was being dropped. I’d ask myself what I was doing wrong but I needed to fight.”
Even the hardest of characters would have been severely tested when Andy saw his brother return traces of xipamide in a sample at the 2012 Tour. It was a major blow for the brothers and their team and even led to their father and former professional rider Johny Schleck questioning whether the pair should retire from the sport.
In the end Fränk fought his case. He was handed a one-year ban and returned to racing at the start of 2014. Between the positive test and his comeback there were several rocky months, culminating with Fränk being fired by Becca during the 2013 Tour de France.
“I was at home when I found out about Fränk’s test. His wife called me and I did what I thought I had to. I went home I went to tell my mum and dad. At the time we thought that it must just be a horrible mistake. Of course it’s one of those things were you don’t even need to ask. You know your brother is innocent.”
“At the same time he was fired from the team at the Tour. I don’t know why Becca kept him so long and then did that but on the morning of a really hard stage guys on the team bus came to me and said, ‘Hey, they’ve fired your brother from the team.’
"And you know, I had to carry on racing, I had to pull on my jersey because it’s my job and I had to carry on. There was already a lot of talk and chatter but I had to go outside and be professional. I had to go out there and face the media who were asking me about my brother being sacked and I had to race with all of that going on. That wasn’t the lowest point, there were harder moments but that was tough. There were a lot of knocks, one after the other and they all leave their scars. The biggest scar? I want to keep that to myself.”
Throughout his hard times Schleck has also learned to deal with the fickle nature of sports fans, with each performance analysed and then scrutinised by a cluster of Tweets directed at his poor run. For such a thin man Schleck has pretty thick skin and it’s a trait that has served him well. Cyrille Guimard, who mentored him at VC Roubaix, once said that Schleck had the mental strength and fortitude of Greg LeMond and when asked about his 2010 Tour title, Schleck simply quips, “On paper I won that Tour but whatever Trevor."
On the more serious criticism, however, Schleck is simply defiant. “I read some things but I can also tune a lot of it out,” he says regarding the Twitter comments that constantly follow each of his rides.
“Of course it hurts you but you need to be strong. I race my bike for me and my family and not for others. I don’t ride my bike to please others. Of course if some people take happiness or inspiration that’s great, but first and foremost I have to be happy with myself. Then I hope that my family are proud of me. That’s why I go out there and suffer so much.
“What’s important is the people around me. No matter what I do, the friends that I have, they like me because I’m me, not because I’m Andy Schleck who won on Galibier. The close ones are there for me in good and bad times. There are those that are there to pat you on the shoulder when it’s all smiles and they talk bad about you when you’re in hard times but I don’t consider them friends. I’m okay with them but I know who I am and what matters.”
Schleck may never scale the heights he did between 2007 and 2011 and we may never really know what that ‘unknown hard knock’ was, but he has come to a point in his career where he accepts that there are more important things in life than racing. Family, friends and happiness within himself come first and foremost, and if he rides well, that’s a bonus. His hunger is still there, otherwise he would have walked away, but it’s balanced with realism.
Come the Tour de France, whether he’s riding to 10th, 50th or 100th all we should expect of him is that he carries out his role on the team, and his brother and Zubeldia could do far worse than have a former Tour winner as their shepherd in the Pyrenees.
“You know you always stay the same. You never really change so I’m still that guy who won on the Galibier but I’m also more realistic in life now. When I was young, my dream was to be a professional cyclist. I never said it was going to be easy but I believe that I’m a fighter. I could stop tomorrow, look back at my career and be proud of what I’ve achieved but I still want to be here and be part of the peloton. I want to be there with my teammates and be in the finales of races."
“Unfinished business? Maybe, maybe not,” he says.
“I believe I can get back to where I was but it takes time and it’s not the most important thing. I’m training a lot. I’m working hard and I’m going to head to the Tour and do my job.”
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