Gary ponders if it was a case of too much too soon for the Tour runner-up. Or too little too late.
Gary Imlach referred to Sky’s Juan Antonia Flecha as “Norman Stanley” during this year’s Tour de France coverage on ITV4, probably instantly alienating an entire generation of British cycling fans who are not of that certain age. Looking back over 3 weeks, tho’, I can imagine Ronnie Barker’s arguably second most famous character – Albert Arkwright – sweeping up outside his shop as darkness falls muttering, “It’s been a funny sort of Tour.” Arguably, none more so than for Andy Raymond Schleck.
2009 saw a win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, another Tour maillot blanc (and second overall to boot), the latter feat he repeated in 2010 with his first 2 Tour stage wins thrown in for good measure. As I type, he may yet be announced as the overall winner of last year’s Tour, pending the outcome of Alberto Contador’s CAS hearing. All of which brings us neatly to events of the last 3 weeks, an epic stage win on the Galibier, a day in yellow that accompanied a fairly humiliating time trial and a third year on the trot on the 2nd step of the Paris podium.
Let me be up front here: I’m an Andy Schleck fan. While very chuffed indeed for Cadel, I was gutted for Andy on Saturday afternoon. Along with many others, I didn’t think Evans had the 54 seconds he needed to wrest the maillot jaune from Andy’s skinny shoulders and, as it turned out, this was true. He found those 54 seconds plus another 97. The thing is, I think I was more disappointed than Andy was. While I was thinking “how do you deal with that as an athlete?”, he seemed unnaturally happy, having just been given a lesson in time trialling by a bloke 8 years his senior and who, let’s be honest, is hardly Fabian Cancellara. (Mind you, this year Fabian Cancellara was barely Fabian Cancellara.) I still find it hard to reconcile the disappointment that must follow losing the Tour on the last day with the apparent joy that being on the podium with his brother brought. As I said on our Tour wrap-up Pod, it’s like Team Sky’s lofty predictions of 2010 which became almost subterranean by the time the new kids on the block staggered into Paris. Can Andy really be pleased with second again? And with no sop of a white jersey this time. Sorry, son, you’re just too old now.
Which brings me neatly to age. Andy Schleck is 26. Looking back over his palmares, the number 2 appears fairly regularly. Tour de France, Giro, Fleche Wallone, ahem, Criterium Chihuahua. I know I’m being a little unfair but I have that nagging doubt that if he was going to do something really special,
shouldn’t he have done it by now? Compare his results with closest rival of recent times, Alberto Contador. By the time he was 26, Bert had won Paris-Nice and all 3 Grand Tours. Twice, in the case of the Tour de France. Even in the face of the current controversy surrounding Contador, you can’t but help get the nagging feeling that maybe Andy has missed the boat.
This month’s Procycling magazine has a timely interview with the legendary directeur Cyrille Guimard who, among other somewhat notable contributions to professional cycling, mentored Andy all-too-briefly at VC Roubaix. In the interview with Pierre Carrey, Guimard says “Sometimes, even I think he’s a child. His youth has been stolen.” Guimard believes that Schleck graduated from CSC’s stagiare programme too early, citing his own experience with Bernard Hinault. “They wanted Hinault to ride the Tour in 1977,” Guimard tells Daniel Friebe, “but we kept him another year and he won”. Contrast that with Schleck who didn’t even complete a full season with VC Roubaix before being snapped up by Bjarne Riis as a stagiaire.
“Riis offered Andy a pro contract, ” continues Guimard, “but it was too early! Riis should have asked us to keep Andy one more year and prepare him to the best level.”
But Schleck turned pro at the tender age of 19 while Guimard proteges Hinault and Laurent Fignon had been 20 and 21 respectively.
Referring to that astounding first Giro in 2007, Guimard is adamant it was the wrong move by CSC. “What a terrible waste!” he tells Carrey. “A golden child can’t ride the Tour to train for the year after… he can only do it in support of a leader. But what was Team CSC doing at [that] Giro? Who did [Schleck] learn from?” In short, he was thrown into the pressure cooker of a Grand Tour way too early so, as Graham suggests in our latest Pod, has – in 2011 – Andy Schleck simply been burned out by the system?
Looking back over this year’s Tour and also earlier parts of the season, I wonder if the weight of expectation – the fear of failure – has crippled Andy’s decision-making in races. He clearly doesn’t lack the legs, that’s for sure. But for two Tours on the trot we’ve waited for attacks that either never came or simply came too late, whether in the race itself or on an individual stage. In the Pyrenees against Contador last year and against Evans in the Alps this. We saw it also earlier this year when both Schleck brothers gave Philippe Gilbert an armchair ride to victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Again, I defer to Graham who spoke this week of the late attacks which steal a few seconds as opposed to the brave, long-range attacks (which admittedly we did see on Stage 18) where the risks are high but it is upon which that Grand Tour victories are built.
I don’t want to be too critical, in fact I’m more sympathetic than critical and there is much to admire about Andy Schleck. Nevertheless, and I hope I’m wrong, but surely there’s a question mark over what’s next for Leopard-Trek’s seemingly only GC hopeful. Perhaps the team as a whole has simply suffered from the same affliction that effectively crippled Team Sky last year. With the team built around both Schleck brothers, it would seem unlikely that a switch to pastures new is on the cards any time soon. So perhaps next season will see a different approach with better early-season results, a rider “in the form of his life” and in twelve months might we be finally toasting Luxembourg’s first Tour de France winner since “Angel of the Mountains”, Charly Gaul, in 1958?
Over to you, Andy.
Tags: Andy Schlek, cycling, Tour de France