Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) heads into his fifteenth season as a professional rider with his focus once again firmly on the Tour de France. The veteran rider, who is now 35, endured a difficult campaign in 2015 but claimed a first win in over a year courtesy of a stage win the Vuelta a Espana.
“I really still enjoy riding my bike but there’s no denying that this has been a really tough season. It’s been a rollercoaster from start to finish,” he told Cyclingnews from his home in Luxembourg.
Many would have forgiven Schleck for wanting a backseat for 2016 – the final year of his current deal at Trek – especially after an injury-plagued year. However, the win in the Vuelta has helped spur him on an unlike his teammate Fabian Cancellara he has no plans of retiring within the next twelve months, with a shot at the Tour de France still a major target.
“I won't carry on riding until I’m 42, don’t worry. It’s going to be hard for me, next season, because I’ve been on the podium in races like the Tour but I know that’s not going to be easy to repeat because of the evolution of young riders who are coming through and it’s harder and harder to perform. However, I still believe that I can ride a top ten in the Tour,” he said.
“If that’s not the case then that’s fine, I can still lead the team in other ways by being at the front and helping others. I can give experience to younger riders. It’s just hard for me to say that 2016 is going to be my last year.”
For Schleck to come anywhere near that objective he must surely go through a calmer spring than the one that took place this season. Crashes and injuries robbed him of a chance to ride the Tour and he constantly found himself on the back foot as he desperately searched for form and fitness.
“I had my first crash in Andalucia and tore a muscle. I missed Paris-Nice but came back for the Classics but wasn’t in contention for the win but in Liege I crashed again. That messed up a tendon in my knee and that took me about a month to recover from. At Tour de Suisse I realised that the knee wasn’t right and had to quit that race and that kept me out of the Tour de France. You can’t go to a race like the Tour de France with an injury. I also didn’t want to take the spot of another rider who was healthy.”
With the Tour out of the picture, Schleck spent July resting before starting to build up for the Vuelta in August. He raced in the US and found enough form to make it through the Spanish Grand Tour intact. Although a GC bid evaporated early on he rallied in the second half of the race to win stage 16. It was his first Grand Tour stage win since the 2009 Tour de France.
“I had a good go in Utah and then at the Vuelta there were a lot of crashes but I lost eight minutes on one stage and that meant I was targeting stages. This season, it was never easy and there were so many times when I just had to fight back just to get fit again. It was never easy.
“But that win at the Vuelta was really important. Like I said I was fighting back all season but in truth when you have those setbacks you do start to question yourself, not just about all the training you have to go through but whether all the sacrifice is worth it. You take that won win in the Vuelta though and you realise that it’s all so worth it.”
With Bauke Mollema and new recruit Ryder Hesjedal joining the team, the complexion of Trek Factory Racing’s stage racing unit shifts ever so slightly. Hesjedal is expected to lead the line at the Tour de France, while Mollema will look to repeat and improve on his top-ten ride from this year’s Tour. Schleck is not entirely sure of his race programme for 2016 but it’s possible that he will begin in Australia before taking on several European stage races, the Ardennes, Tour de Suisse and then the Tour. He has seen Trek Factory Racing transform from the Leopard days, first into the RadioShack hybrid under Johan Bruyneel and then into the current form under the leadership of Luca Guercilena.
“It’s just evolution that a team changes from year to year and that’s the same with every squad. We have a couple of new riders like Ryder, Kiel Reijnen and a Niccolò Bonifazio. Ryder I’ve known my whole career but Peter Stetina is another rider who I think could be a real joker in our pack. He’s coming back from that bad crash that he had but he could be very strong.”
The team may well be stronger for 2016 but Schleck is still unsure about his long term future. For now he seems intent and content on setting targets for next season, although he is fully aware that he cannot go on forever.
“I don’t know when I’ll stop, I really don’t. It’s hard to imagine that this will be my final season. I’ve had one year off the bike and I know just how much I missed it. For now, I’m just thinking about next season and getting the best out of myself. If I can ride like that and perform for the team I’ll be happy. Then we’ll see what happens.”
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