It was during Stage 2 of the Tour Down Under when Andy Schleck's happiness and relief at being back on the bike was evident for all to see. In the last 12 months he's been handed a Tour de France title in a way in which he did not want it bestowed, and been to hell and back with injury. It was time to ride and it wasn't just about staying out of trouble in a nervous peloton, nor was it a training exercise.
"Why should it always be Jens [Voigt] that is riding [on the front]?" Schleck had told his RadioShack Leopard teammates during the pre-stage meeting. "I can ride as well. Riding in the front in the wind, suffering; that is what makes my shape better and stronger so that's the main goal. I won't hesitate the next day to do the same. I like it. I ride in the front and of course it hurts. Sometimes when I am really hurting, I hope that the guys behind are hurting also. I like to do it and I'm really, really happy to be back in the bunch again in the peloton. It's something different when you can do something like I did today."
It's Schleck's first appearance at the Tour Down Under after years of gentle nudging from former teammate, Adelaide local Stuart O'Grady. It's only now, as part of his build up to full competition following his crash at the Dauphine last June which left him with a fractured pelvis, that the Australian WorldTour event has been an option. Schleck's return began at the season-ending Tour of Beijing.
"Beijing was hard because I knew that I'd go back there and I probably had better shape when I was a junior than when I went to Beijing," he told Cyclingnews. "It was terrible but I went there because I want to race. It was not a good idea I found out after three days but still I finished the stage and I was happy. The positive thing about it was that it was the kick off for my new season again.
"To come here, mentally it was easy, really easy. I was counting the days to come here. Beijing was really different..."
The schedule Schleck has to have
Schleck's 2013 calendar is packed in the lead-up to the 100th Tour de France. After the Tour Down Under the 27-year-old will race the Tour of the Mediterranean, Tour du Haut Var, GP Nobili, Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Criterium International and the Tour of the Basque Country.
From there, he will probably head to the Tour of California and wrap up his preparations with the Tour de Suisse, before heading to Corsica for the Tour's Grand Depart.
That's a lot of racing for someone essentially starting from scratch, but he's unconcerned about it potentially being a case of too much, too soon.
"I think I have pretty wide shoulders on that kind of [thing]. I am not afraid of that," Schleck. "People ask me, 'You might be over trained?' I don't know one guy who is over trained. For me it's a myth so ..."
The time is now
Schleck will turn 28 this year, an age that he admits is make or break for the rider that he could potentially become.
"I am definitely going to improve," he said. "The best age of a cyclist is between 28 and 32. That is what they say. I hope I am not an exception, or I'm not different. But it's also kind of ... cycling is mentally a really hard sport. My last year, 2012, made me mentally a lot stronger because I realised it is really, really what I want to do - it is winning bike races. Mentally I have no doubt ... it was not good last year. I'm still recovering to come back and be good and be in front in the final of a race. That will come. But I am happy to be here and have a bike number on my jersey and compete."
Returning to the peloton means more clashes with the likes of great rival Alberto Contador (Saxo - Tinkoff) at the grand tours. The Tour de France which he missed in 2012 saw Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome rise to the occasion for Sky and Schleck wants to pit himself against them all.
"For me now I can tell you 100 names I have to beat first! Wait I was 89th today [Wednesday] so 98 now!" he joked. "I go with of course big ambitions into the season but I know it's going to be a bumpy road until I am where I want to be because it's not easy, you cannot build up shape in three months, it's simply not possible. Maybe some say so but no, if you ask me, not."
But for now, Schleck is all about getting back to the normal and it's not just about racing the big events, it's also about rediscovering the confidence he needs to just be able to sit in the peloton.
"I am a little, I won't say scared, but I think it's also normal because you have to get used to riding in the peloton again. I rode in Beijing but that was more like behind the peloton than in the peloton so ... it worries me a little bit, honestly but it just takes time."
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