BEIJING (VN) — It’s the end of the season for most of the peloton lining up at the second edition of the Tour of Beijing. For Andy Schleck, it’s just the beginning of what he’s hoping is the end of a nightmare year.
The five-day Tour of Beijing, which opens Tuesday with a circuit course around the Olympic Village, marks a comeback for the injury-riddled Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) just as the remainder of the pack is looking to make vacation plans after their respective 2012 seasons.
For Schleck, who missed both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España due to injury, this year is one he’d like to forget.
“This is a new beginning for me. I am happy to be back on the bike and be part of the peloton again,” Schleck said Monday in Beijing. “The injury has given me more problems than I thought. A lot of riders are ending their season; for me, this is the beginning of the 2013 season.”
Schleck’s season was derailed following a crash during the time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné that left him with a fracture to his sacrum.
The Tour de France was a wash, but Schleck expected to return to race the Vuelta. Complications with his recovery, however, torpedoed his hopes for a showdown with longtime rival Alberto Contador at the Spanish tour.
Schleck, who added some weight to his birdlike frame during his time away from competition, returns to the peloton for the Beijing tour hoping to get through the race and use it as a springboard toward full recovery in 2013.
“To be honest, I cannot even call it (2012) a season,” Schleck said. “It was the hardest period of my cycling career. I was in tears when I realized I could not race the Tour. For seven years as a professional, I didn’t have any major injury, then it all caught up with me.”
The 27-year-old said he barely watched the Tour de France because it was too painful to miss out on the season highlight.
“I didn’t follow the race very closely,” he said. “You realize what you’re missing when you’re not there. It’s nice to be back in the peloton and a pin a number on my jersey again.”
Schleck said he was still unable to train without pain in the area of his sit-bone at the base of his spinal column. The initial fracture was supposed to take six weeks to heal, but complications caused by the accumulation of bodily fluids around the injured zone made it excruciating to train.
RadioShack management hastily scuttled planned appearances at the USA Pro Challenge and the Vuelta when it became apparent that Schleck was in no condition to race.
“I am not pain-free,” he said. “I hope it’s gone for good and I can train properly. I know I have a lot of work ahead of me. I am confident I can have a good winter and be ready for the big races next year.”
Schleck says he can ride two-to-three hours without feeling the searing pain and discomfort in his sit-bone area that made it all but impossible to train. He also underwent intense recovery treatments with a physical therapist three times a week.
“I still have pain, but it doesn’t bother me so much when I am training,” Schleck said. “My season starts now. I spent summer at home, something I haven’t done in a long time, so I will probably spend the winter somewhere in Spain where the weather is good and I can train.”
His comeback race last week at Binche-Tournai-Binche ended early when he abandoned 60km from the finish line.
For the five-day Beijing tour, Schleck says he’s just hoping to make it through the race. A hillier parcours compared to last year will make that a challenge.
“I know my condition is not super. I am not the same Andy Schleck people are used to seeing,” he said. “If Alberto (Contador) were here, I’d have no chance. I am not in condition to win. For me, it’s a new start.”
Who can win remains to be seen.
The GC race
The big difference from last year’s debut edition of the Tour of Beijing is the absence of an individual time trial.
In 2012, Tony Martin won thanks to the time differences he carved out on his rivals in the race against the clock. Also, organizers have introduced time bonuses, so they’re hoping for a tighter GC battle during the week.
“We’ll see if I can do something on the climbs, which are not too hard for me. I want to try to do as well as possible in the overall,” Martin said. “I really enjoyed winning this race last year and that’s why I decided to come back again. It’s a great way to end the season.”
A hillier route, featuring more climbs and a mountaintop finish at the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China over the same circuit featured in the 2008 Olympic road, should deliver a more intense fight for the leader’s jersey in the season’s final WorldTour tilt.
The third stage, ending up the Cat. 3 summit of the Badaling wall, could crown the eventual winner. At least that’s what Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is hoping for. The 2008 Olympic champion won the gold medal on a similar course, so he’s hoping lightning strikes twice.
“There will be enough teams with interest to control the race until Badaling. Whether the climb is hard enough to make big differences remains to be seen,” Sánchez said. “Coming back to Beijing always brings good memories. I like racing in China and after some of the bad luck I’ve had, I would like to have a nice result.”
Other quality riders line up Tuesday afternoon in Tianenmen Square, including Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing), Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp).
The race opens Tuesday with a flat, 117km circuit course starting in front of the Forbidden Palace at Tianenmen Square and finishing with 12 laps around the Olympic Village, with the finish line in front of the Bird’s Nest stadium.
In another change from last year, the race pushes clear of central Beijing and loops through the hilly country north and west of the city. Stage 2 starts in the Olympic Village and tackles three climbs before ending in Mentougou.
The 162.5km third stage tackles the hills around Badaling while the 165.5km fourth stage ends in Chanping north of Beijing. The 182.5km final stage hits one second- and one first-category climb in the final 50km that could spice things up.
Concerns over fan access and smog remain an issue. Local officials insist they will allow spectators to get closer to the action while Beijing’s infamous air quality, with heavy smog settling in Monday after several days of sunny skies, once again raised concerns.
Schleck said racing in Beijing is not much worse than other major urban areas.
“Paris is not perfect as well and we finish the Tour there every year,” he said. “Maybe the air quality here is not like the Swiss Alps, but I don’t think it’s any unhealthier than racing in 3C and cold during the classics in Belgium. At the Volta a Catalunya, we were racing in snow. I’m not sure that’s so healthy. I don’t see (smog) as a big issue. Until now, it was sunny every day.”
Clear skies or not, what’s sure for Schleck is that he has a few days of heavy breathing ahead — and a long winter of intense training to return from his throw-away season.