Andy Schleck's fitness has been a major talking point at the Critérium du Dauphiné to date, but the RadioShack-Nissan rider was denied the chance to gauge his time trialling form when he crashed early on stage 4.
The Luxembourger came a cropper in the stiff winds that buffeted the 53.5km time trial course from Villié-Morgon to Bourg-en-Bresse; rounding a sharp right hand bend 12 kilometres into his effort, a sudden gust caught his rear disc wheel, and Schleck duly took a tumble.
Although Schleck was quickly back on his spare bike, a puncture shortly afterwards added insult to injury, and he opted not to take any further risks as the wind continued to wreak havoc on his cornering.
"When we did the parcours this morning the wind wasn't like that," a dejected Schleck said afterwards. "I had a good start and good feelings until there. After that, I kept on going but I didn't have the concentration after that. I just wanted to get to the finish. I couldn't go in the [time trial] position anymore."
Addressing a group of reporters huddled around a team van near the finish line, Schleck was at least able to count his blessings as far injuries are concerned. Although his skinsuit was torn around his right hip, Schleck reported road rash but no broken bones as a result of his fall.
"After a crash you get on the bike and you have the adrenaline for the first few kilometres, but after a while my ribs hurt and my hand hurt," Schleck said. "Still, I'm sitting here and not in an ambulance, so that's a good sign."
Schleck bristled slightly when it was put to him that he may have erred in choosing disc wheels on such a windy course. "Maybe if you have 85 kilos it's easier to stay on the bike," he said tersely. "The wind was playing with me a bit out there, so it's a good warning maybe for the other guys.
"I started with the first guys and nobody was out there before me [to warn about the conditions – ed]. The wind came just as I started."
Of course, Schleck was among the early starters expressly because he had been so out of sorts in the opening days of the Dauphiné, coughing up chunks of time on the first two road stages.
But then, the 26-year-old Schleck is already an old hand when it comes to churning out sub-par performances in June before undergoing a remarkable transfiguration in July.
"Everybody is asking my form, but then every year people ask about it," he said. "In years gone by, I've always been a bit behind at the Tour de Suisse and then I've always been up there at the Tour de France. And now, [by riding the Dauphiné – ed.] I'm a week ahead, so I'm not worried at all for the Tour."
The more immediate goal is to stay in touch with the likes of Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Cadel Evans (BMC) on the road to Morzine on Saturday: "Tomorrow, I'm probably not going to feel great on the bike, but I hope to stay with the best on the Joux Plane. Every day, I'm feeling better and better."
Bruyneel – we wanted a time trial test
Schleck and his brother Fränk's rapport with manager Johan Bruyneel has been the subject of considerable media scrutiny in recent weeks, but after phoning the start line to warn his remaining riders about the dangers of using disc wheels, Bruyneel told reporters that his rider had started Thursday's time trial at a decent tempo.
"It's a pity because I think he'd started well," he said. "We weren't expecting him to do a super time trial but the plan was for him to give a constant effort for 50km. I think physically he was going quite well today. He wasn't going to lose the kind of time that a lot of other people were."
While Schleck will continue in the Dauphiné as the race enters the high mountains, Bruyneel was disappointed that he had been denied the chance to test himself against the watch, particularly given the similarities in distance between this time trial, and the Tour de France's penultimate stage to Chartres. Forced to switch bikes following his accident, Schleck will now have no SRM data from his effort.
"He's a climber, so we know already how good he is in the mountains," Bruyneel said wistfully. "This time trial was a great test and we weren't able to do it."
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