With the first summit finish of the Tour de France only three weeks away, Andy Schleck finished almost 15 minutes behind the winner Steven Kruiswijk on yesterday's mountaintop stage to Malbun in the Tour de Suisse. The Luxembourger was dropped from the bunch at the very foot of the last climb, finally escorted to the line by his Leopard Trek teammate Jens Voigt.
The poor performances of the Tour de France favourite in what should arguably be his last test before his greatest objective leave the cycling world puzzled: are they truly a sign of bad form or has the 26-year-old deliberately chosen not to spend too much energy in Switzerland?
At the finish, Schleck himself gave the impression that he was not happy with what had happened. His Leopard Trek teammates had been working hard to get him and his brother Fränk in good positions for the final climb, and while his elder brother was able to continue with the best climbers, Andy was left behind.
"It was a very bad day for me," Schleck communicated through his press officer in the evening. "I did not feel well and contrary to other days when I also felt irregular, it did not pass. I'm a little surprised as I had reassured myself on stage three. Once I got dropped, I did not climb flat out but it's clear that I had hoped for a better outcome.
"But there's no reason to panic. Last year, too, I didn't feel too well in the Tour de Suisse, and the first mountain stage in the Tour is still far away."
Maxime Montfort, who will probably also be one of his teammates also at the Tour, echoed Schleck's sentiments. "I'm not worried for Andy. You know it, too, he needs the pressure of the Tour. It was the same last year - and you can't be at a 100 percent all the time, can you," he told L'Equipe.
Some observers, however, think that Schleck may be bluffing, having chosen not to show his real possibilities in view of the Tour. Daniel Atienza, who used to ride for Cofidis and now comments the race for Swiss television, feels that the 2010 Tour de France runner-up is still building up towards his July goal. "Andy does not show anything about his condition as he has chosen to never reach his anaerobic level," Atienza said. "He's clearly still training.
"[In stage three's ascent of the Grosse Scheidegg] he got the answers to his questions. He did the whole climb in a fast tempo, and when Cunego came back up to him, he took his wheel without difficulty before letting go to wait for Fränk. He did as he pleased. To me, he must have chosen two tests [at the Tour de Suisse]. He succeeded in the first mountain test at the Grosse Scheidegg. The second will be the time trial on Sunday. Between the two, he doesn't want to spill any beans."
The truth, as usual, may be located somewhere in the middle. "How can you interpret that he did not even try to work for Fränk and ease his teammates' burden at the foot of the climb?," asked Marco Vitali, a former teammate of Gianni Bugno. "Perhaps he is so confident in his abilities that he decided to hide his game. He also knows that he has to peak during the third week of the Tour and organises his build-up in a very straight fashion."