Scarcely four years have passed, yet they feel like a lifetime. In January 2011, they came in their thousands to watch Andy Schleck spearhead the launch of the new Leopard Trek team at Luxembourg’s Coque Arena. 30 kilometres away, at a rather more low-key gathering in his home town of Mondorf-les-Bains on Thursday morning, Schleck confirmed that his career as a professional cyclist had come to an end at the age of 29.
Without a result of note over the past three seasons, rumours of Schleck’s imminent retirement had been circulating for some time, and when he called a press conference two days ago, the announcement seemed inevitable.
“Now I have to confirm the speculation. In 2015 I will not be a professional cyclist anymore, which hurts me a lot but I had no real decision. It was taken from me by my crash in the Tour in the UK,” Schleck said on Thursday morning.
Schleck ruptured both the collateral and cruciate ligaments in his knee during a crash on stage 3 of the Tour de France, and while surgery in Switzerland to repair the damage to the ligaments was successful, he was beset by repeated inflammations of his knee as he attempted to return to training in Mallorca later in the summer.
“I spent six weeks on crutches and I don’t know how many times I went back to Basel,” he said. “I could ride for three or four hours but whenever I went hard on a climb, my knee swelled up. I went to the doctors and they said there wasn’t much more they could do. I went back to Mallorca and hoped it would get better, but it didn’t. The ligaments were fine, they healed, but I have almost no cartilage left under my kneecap.”
Flanked by Trek Factory Racing manager Luca Guercilena and long-term mentor Kim Andersen, Schleck began his press conference with a statement in English and he was close to tears as he explained the thought process that led him to call time on his career.
“I thought about my knee and what I would do with the rest of my life. I was not good mentally because I had to take a decision that cycling was finished for me – at least professionally – at the end of this year,” he said, before handing the microphone to Andersen while he composed himself. “You can’t forget that Andy turned pro at 19, so he had ten good years as a pro. I think he can be happy,” Andersen said.
Schleck’s last victory dated back to July 2011, when he won atop the Galibier at the Tour, and the three seasons since were beset by injuries and low morale. He abandoned all but two stage races during an unhappy spell under Johan Bruyneel’s management in 2012, and missed the Tour after fracturing his pelvis at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Although Schleck completed the Tour in 20th place in 2013, there was increasing speculation about his motivation to continue at the highest level, and he ended his year with another spate of abandons. His 2014 campaign with the revamped Trek Factory Racing team had been a low-key one, although he insisted that he had been offered the chance to continue racing with his brother Fränk and the squad next year.
“The team said they had a place for me if I wanted to ride but I said it wasn’t possible,” Schleck said. “I could have tried but not succeeded and I would have been a huge disappointment. I wasn’t worried about disappointing other people, but I didn’t want to be a disappointment to myself anymore.”
The arc of Schleck’s career was a curious one. He turned professional under the tutelage of Bjarne Riis at CSC in 2005 and managed to finish a surprise second in the 2007 Giro d’Italia at the age of just 21, yet he won just a single race after his 26th birthday. Schleck’s motivation seemed to wane following his brother Fränk’s positive test for Xipamide at the 2012 Tour, though rumours of a problem with alcohol and concerns over his biological passport were both swiftly rebuffed by Schleck and his team.
“I have a lot of good memories of my career, some of the best in my life – though not the best,” Schleck said, smiling at his wife and his son, Teo, who were on hand at the press conference. “My career was full of success but if you fly high you also fall deep. When I was down, I always stood up but now I can’t stand up.”
Schleck signalled his early promise by finishing as best young rider at the Tour on three successive occasions, like Jan Ullrich, and gained the mantle as a latter-day Raymond Poulidor when he stood on the second step of the podium in Paris in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
He was later awarded the 2010 Tour following Alberto Contador’s positive test for clenbuterol, however, and while he seemed a decidedly reluctant recipient of the maillot jaune on that occasion in 2012, Schleck was more bullish about the win on Thursday morning.
“Winning the Tour on the green table [retrospectively – ed.] was good memory because I won that Tour, I deserved it,” Schleck said. “I can recall my career with a smile. I am very proud of what I achieved and not many people can say that.”
Schleck was coy about what the immediate future holds for him, and while he appeared hopeful that he would remain involved in cycling in some capacity – “You’ll still see me around, I won’t hide at home, I’ll still be part of this cycling world” – he was keen to stress that he was also eager to experience life outside of the sport.
“I’m only 30 years old, I have a lot of opportunities to do something with my life,” he said. “Now I’m absolutely excited to start a new life and realise the other dreams I have. I’ve always said that cycling is my sport, it’s my passion and it’s my job, but it’s not my life.
“I know there’s a lot more to life than being a top-level Tour de France rider. The birth of my son was the nicest day of my life. No podium in Paris can top that, not even close.”
Fränk Schleck was not in attendance at Thursday’s press conference, but Andy Schleck said that his older brother had been supportive of his decision to stop. “Fränk is sad that I won’t be with him anymore but he’s proud that I’ve taken this decision,” he said. “He accepted it and said that it shows courage. You cannot wait in life because you get run over.”