Tales from the peloton, June 4, 2007
The third generation of Luxembourg's Schleck cycling family seems to be the best yet. At the Giro d'Italia, Andy Schleck, second overall and best young rider, indicated that he's got an even brighter future than his older brother Fränk, reports Cyclingnews' Jean-François Quénet.
The Schleck name first hit the international cycling scene over 70 years ago, when Gustav Schleck contested events in the 1930s. "He was an independent," recalls his son, Johnny, who himself has raced professionally for teams like Pelforth and Bic, "racing against the professional riders without a team." Johnny rode the Tour de France seven times between 1965 and 1973, at the service of '68 winner Jan Janssen and '73 victor Luis Ocaña. "I hardly rode for myself, always for captains," he surmised of his career, although he managed to finish in the top 20 twice: 19th in 1970 and 20th in 1967.
"I've never wanted my sons to become bike riders," he pretends. But now he supports the pair as much as he can. Johnny's oldest, Steve, rode the political route rather than becoming a cyclist, but Fränk and Andy are die-hard racers, apart of the new wave of champions.
The pair's presence in the professional peloton prompts cycling fans to remember their tiny home of Luxembourg, with all 460,000 inhabitants squeezed between France, Belgium and Germany, has given the world three Tour de France champions: François Faber in 1909, Nicolas Frantz in 1927 and 1928, Charly Gaul in 1958.
The next could just be Andy Schleck.
Fränk stunned the world when he won the Amstel Gold Race in 2006, but he sent out a stern warning of things to come as he claimed the victory: "But you haven't seen my little brother, Andy, he's more talented than me," he said.
Fränk's comments are probably true. While Fränk's position at the height of world cycling is a reward for much hard work, Andy's talent is pure and god-given.
As a comparison, when Fränk rode the Tour de l'Avenir in 2001 as a stagiaire for Festina, he wasn't very efficient at the service of Florent Brard, who lost the race by a second to Denis Menchov. Andy on the other hand was the most fantastic and reliable helper for Lars Ytting Bak, who won the 2005 edition.
Andy is five years younger than Fränk. He caught the attention of Cyrille Guimard, the ex-cyclist turned sport director who brought Greg LeMond to Europe, straight away when he joined VC Roubaix aged 19. "He was injured at the beginning of the year but when he started racing in April, I quickly realized that he was the likes of Laurent Fignon," noted Guimard.
Despite his continued support of the youngest, Guimard was puzzled by Team CSC's choice to run Andy at this year's Giro d'Italia. "Andy has impressed me but he shouldn't have done this race," said Guimard. "I don't understand why CSC didn't plan for him to try and win the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse this year before sending him to the Giro next year with a real team around him for making him win at his first attempt."
The youngest of the Schleck dynasty had no plan himself. Heading into the Giro he didn't even know how he would cope with a three-week race. "But I had in mind to target the top 10 if everything went well," he explained. But his debut at the Italian tour went better than he'd hoped for, as he stormed home in second place, less than two minutes behind winner Danilo Di Luca (Liquigas). With Schleck's podium finish in the grueling event came the Young Rider jersey, which returned to the race for the first time since Evgeni Berzin won it in 1994.
Italy's new star Riccardo Ricco planned on taking the white young rider jersey at this year's Giro, but Schleck put paid to that at the end of Stage 10 up the sanctuary of Nostra Signora della Guardia. That day, 'baby Schleck' had some regrets. "I had the legs for winning the stage," he said, but he didn't dare to attack from afar.
Maybe he was still a little bit intimidated by the Italian bosses of the bunch, or the wisdom of directeur sportif Alain Gallopin in the first climb of the Giro, the Montevergine di Mercogliano. "Wait and see, the Giro is long," the Frenchman told him. "Next time I will only listen to my feelings," Schleck noted, reflecting on a missed opportunity.
"For his determination, he reminds me [of Laurent] Fignon a lot," said Gallopin, who was the '89 Giro d'Italia winner's masseur before becoming a directeur sportif. As much as the last French winner of the pink race, the young Schleck is a dreamer of sorts. While Fränk is extremely well organized, Andy improvises more.
Verona time trial winner Paolo Savoldelli defined Andy as "pure talent", but the rider says its not just his natural ability that's brought him this far. "I know that I'm young and people say that I'm talented, but what I've done at the Giro is also due to the hard training I've done before," underlined Andy. "I'm maybe the only one who knows about that."
Father Johnny knows about it as well. He works in Luxembourg as a chauffeur for European Commission VIPs, but very often he also drives the scooter with his sons training hard behind him. "As none of us are having a love story these days, we both live with our parents at the family house in Mondorf-les-Bains," Fränk explained.
"Fränk is my idol," Andy notes. "What's happening to us is exceptional," Fränk added. "It's been a while since people saw two brothers going so well in cycling, it's enormous!"
Fränk was at the Bayern Rundfahrt when Andy rode so well up the Monte Zoncolan. As the stage in Germany finished early, he was able to see his baby brother on television. Afterwards, Australia's Stuart O'Grady called Andy on his cell phone and said: "Your brother is crying". It seems that's another thing the Schleck brothers have in common. "I was also crying when I saw him on TV winning the Amstel Gold Race," reflects Andy.
The young Schleck has definitely gained his captaincy on the Monte Zoncolan. "The more we climbed, the best I felt," he recalls. "My good legs allowed me to come across to the front of the race, and first of all to the group of Di Luca. We were catching one by one the riders from the initial breakaway."
"I also realized that Ricco was dropped off," added Andy. "Before that stage, he was only 43 seconds behind me for the white jersey, which was my goal number one, before trying to finish on the podium. I impressed myself. I was amazed to find myself among all these great and experienced riders, I even dropped Di Luca off. All the guys climbing with me were much lighter than me, around ten kilos. At the end of the day, the old riders had more strength in their legs, but I was happy to be up there."
As he looked at his son, Johnny was crying in the Team CSC bus that day. During the rest day Johnny wanted to take Andy to recon the 'most grueling climb in Europe', as the Italians had billed it, but Andy refused the offer. Instead he preferred to rest quietly at the hotel, although he knew his Italian rivals had already done reconnaissance on the Giro.
In the morning of that stage, starting in Austria, Andy joked with his directeur sportif. "Alain, are you worried?," he said smiling widely. "It's true that I was worried, because the team cars weren't allowed to go on the Zoncolan," Gallopin confirmed. "But frankly, Andy didn't need anybody. I wonder how a directeur sportif is useful for him. It was the same with Fignon."
With his white jersey and his exceptional charisma, Schleck has become the pin-up boy of the 2007 Giro d'Italia. He has attracted a lot of fans to watch him ride what he described as 'the best time trial of [his] life' in Verona, where he came sixth ahead of a few true specialists.
About 100 people came from Luxembourg to follow the last stages of the Italian race. Andy received special support from Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's Interior Minister, who is a real fan of cycling. He also impressed the gorgeous miss Giro, with some Italian his Norwegian teammate Kurt-Asle Arvesen taught him : ti voglio dare tanti baci (I want to give you many kisses).
But the successful Andy Schleck is also an intelligent guy who understands what's happening to him these days. "I'm young and I have a bright future ahead of me, but I'm not going to have a big head even though the public likes me," he said.
While the youngest celebrates his 22 birthday next week, he's already made a promises to the Italians: "to come back to the Giro and win". While he may have missed out on this year's Maglia Rosa the status of Andy Schleck in the world of cycling has changed forever.
"I aim at winning a big classic before a Grand Tour," he said. With the talent the youngster has shown on Italian soil over the past few weeks, it's not hard to think that Andy Schleck could become the fourth rider from Luxembourg to win the prestigious Tour de France: perhaps in just 14 months time.
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