Andy Schleck must reach Tour de France in better form, says Horner

Chris Horner is happy to play a supporting role for Andy Schleck at the 2012 Tour de France, but he has warned that his new RadioShack-Nissan teammate will have to reach July in better form than he did last season.

The American downplayed the idea that the Schleck brothers had made many tactical errors over the course of the three weeks, but did voice his concern that Andy had arrived at the start shy of the same condition he had in 2010.

“I think it’s easy to see that Alberto [Contador] and Andy’s form wasn’t as strong as it had been the year before because those two were definitely flying the year before,” Horner told Cyclingnews in Calpe, where the 2011 Leopard and RadioShack teams were united for their first formal training camp. “They were missing one percent or half a percent, but at this level that can win you the Tour de France.

“The mistakes Andy made during last year’s Tour were not made during the race, it was before the race. He didn’t arrive at the Tour de France with the same form that he had the year before. So that’s where the first mistake came from, and mistakes after that were small and insignificant with the exception of the Alpe d’Huez stage.”

By the time that memorable stage came around, of course, the unfortunate Horner was watching at home on television after crashing out of the Tour at the end of week one. While he enjoyed the spectacle, he was surprised by the approach of all of the overall contenders.

“Every GC guy on that stage tactically blew that up compared to how they should have raced it,” he said. “[Schleck] should have just let Contador go. Maybe if Andy was a little calmer and actually stayed at the back, he could have dropped Cadel [on the final climb] and made the time up there. But in the end, Cadel pulled out a superior TT and that was one of his best time trials for sure.”

While the Schlecks will have to work diligently on an Achilles heel that seems ever more exposed by the high quota of time trial miles on next year’s route, they should enjoy more robust support in the mountains in 2012. The Leopard Trek team set the tempo early on many of the Tour’s mountain stages last July, but the brothers appeared to be lacking support at the business end of affairs, and Horner is hopeful he can slot into that role.

On the other hand, if Contador and Evans are to be considered the primary favourites for the Tour (“at this moment of course,” Horner smiled), tactically, such a scenario could play to RadioShack-Nissan’s advantage.

“When you’re the third favourite in the Tour de France, the first and second team are always going to have to do the work on the early parts of the race,” he said. “In theory, we should be completely fresh when we hit the first mountain stage, and at that point in time, we’ll see if Andy’s the best in the world for the Tour de France that year, or if we’re going to have to play tactics.”

Learning from 2008

In Horner’s view, Carlos Sastre was the last rider to triumph in Paris by privileging the head over the legs, and ironically, it was the Schlecks themselves who were the foil to their CSC teammate in 2008.

“There’s no doubt Carlos Sastre was very good, but he wasn’t the best,” Horner said. “Cadel was the best that year, hands down. Andy and Fränk were a really close second and third, but Cadel was the best.”

As in 2011, Alpe d’Huez proved to be the critical stage and one that Horner – then a teammate of Evans at Silence-Lotto – remembers all too well, as Sastre took the stage and the yellow jersey. “Cadel controlled the two brothers and he had to let somebody go,” he said. “Tactically he did a beautiful move, I would have let Sastre go for sure."

A flagging Evans was unable to overhaul the deficit on the penultimate day, however, worn out from chasing CSC in the mountains. "It was the first time I’ve seen in twenty years of watching the Tour de France where the strongest guy in the Tour didn’t win. And they did it off of tactics, and it was beautiful racing,” Horner said.

Horner is hopeful, therefore, that the new RadioShack-Nissan squad can draw some inspiration from CSC’s approach to that Tour. “The first week they didn’t do anything, not even sending Jens [Voigt]] up the road, but they arrived at the mountains really fresh, and tactically they worked over Cadel.”

Horner spent three seasons riding alongside Evans, and can recall the frustration of being one of the few riders able to stay close to the Australian in the mountains. In spite of BMC’s extensive transfer campaign, he feels they have done little to bolster their leader’s support in the mountains.

“Cadel had no teammates and he still has no teammates. With the exception of Tejay [Van Garderen] – and we’re not sure how he’ll do in the Grand Tours – they’ve signed no help,” Horner said incredulously. “And by signing Gilbert and Thor [Hushovd], they are effectively taking help away from him. He has less help now than he ever had in the past, and the guys that they’re paying millions of dollars to come ride during the Tour de France are going to take one or two riders themselves.”

On a personal level, Horner is glad to be over the worst of the effects of his crash at the Tour de France, and has begun training a month earlier than normal in order to make up for missing out on the second half of last season after sustaining a blood clot in his lung. “Everything’s all healed up. I’m still on the blood thinners until January, but the season doesn’t start until February so that’s fine. No problem there, so long as I don’t hit the deck hard.”

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Barry Ryan
Head of Features

Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.