When Andy Schleck turned pro at age 19, success came easily — the victories, the money, the adulation.
This past June, when Schleck crashed heavily in the Critérium du Dauphiné, it was as though a lifetime’s worth of pent-up ill fortune had come tumbling down upon his slender frame.
What was first expected to be a momentary setback — a fracture to the sacrum, or sit-bone — has blossomed into a career-threatening injury.
Add turmoil within the RadioShack-Nissan team and a possible doping ban for his older brother, Fränk, and Schleck knows he faces what may be the biggest challenge of his career in 2013.
“I will prove that I am still there,” Schleck told VeloNews. “The big aim is the Tour. I was four times on the podium. I missed out last year, but that doesn’t mean I have disappeared from the screen. I still have the engine.”
Schleck may indeed still have the engine —in his own estimation, at least — but it remains to be seen whether he can still give it full throttle.
In what was an already tumultuous season, Schleck’s crash and fracture in a time trial at the Dauphiné couldn’t have come at a worse time. When it was apparent he would not go to the Tour de France for the first time since his 2008 debut, Schleck broke down in tears.
The pain and discomfort left him unable to challenge Alberto Contador in the Vuelta a España. And when he toed the line for the season-closer at the Tour of Beijing — at which most of the peloton was riding with one eye on the exit — Schleck was dropped every day before abandoning in the fourth stage.
In short, Schleck’s 2012 season was a complete wash.
“I wouldn’t even really call it a season,” he admits. “I would rather break any bone in my body than that one again.”
Still only 27, Schleck remains optimistic about his recovery. He insists the worst is behind him and says he can train and ride without the nagging pain that over the past half year sapped his power, along with his morale.
“This was the worst injury of my cycling career by far and the hardest year of my career,” he said. “A lot of riders have come back from things worse than this, so I am not too worried about it. I know I just need to be patient.”
RadioShack-Nissan is obviously doing everything it can to nurse Schleck back to top shape.
With Fränk Schleck facing a possible two-year racing ban after testing positive for a banned diuretic at the 2012 Tour, the team needs a fully operational Andy Schleck for 2013.
What proved an awful year for the Schleck brothers was equally bad for the squad. The merger between RadioShack and Leopard-Trek was rife with tension from the beginning.
Johan Bruyneel’s management style rubbed many the wrong way, and the Belgian’s legal problems with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) only complicated the team’s performances on the road.
Bruyneel finally left the team in October and faces a lifetime ban if he loses his battle with USADA over what the agency charges was an organized doping conspiracy at the U.S. Postal Service team.
Despite some promising results, including Chris Horner’s second place at Tirreno-Adriatico and Fabian Cancellara’s yellow-jersey run at the Tour, RadioShack-Nissan certainly fell well short of the hype in its debut season as cycling’s latest super-team.
“There were complications with the merger, but that’s normal for something like this,” Schleck said. “Between the riders, we always had good relations. We had a good atmosphere on the team, better than people believed from the outside. I believe next year it will be better.”
With Bruyneel gone, the team is hoping to get things back on the right foot.
Taking over the helm of the team management is Luca Guercilena, a former disciple of the late trainer Dr. Aldo Sassi.
His credentials — working with the Mapei Training Center as well as the development squad of the once-mighty Mapei team, which included riders such as Cancellara — make him the best man for the job to lead RadioShack-Nissan toward calmer waters.
Guercilena says righting things with the younger Schleck is one of his top challenges in what will be a pivotal year for RadioShack-Nissan.
“He is already setting up a training program that will put him in good condition for the season,” Guercilena told VeloNews, explaining that Schleck is working with Kim Andersen, a trusted mentor.
“Andy had the bad injury, but we are already seeing him on good track back to being the rider everyone knows he is,” said Guercilena.
Guercilena says he’s confident the worst of Schleck’s physical problems are behind him. The Italian also says it’s equally important for Schleck to not to lose his confidence.
Some riders never come back from a debilitating injury, sometimes because they can never recover physically, but others because they simply lose their mental edge.
But Guercilena says the sometimes-lackadaisical Schleck could come out of the setback even stronger.
“It’s been a very hard period for Andy. For the first time in his pro career, he was in some trouble, that he could not rely on his natural talent,” he said. “This experience will make him stronger. We are working to manage the situation and we are confident he can come back at an even higher level. When you suffer in life, you can apply these lessons and become even stronger.”
For Schleck, returning to his former level will mean shining in the Ardennes and then making a run for the Tour podium.
Since riding to 12th in his Tour debut in 2008, Schleck has never finished worse than second, and even got a hand-me-down yellow jersey when Alberto Contador tested positive for clenbuterol in 2010.
Missing out on the 2012 Tour was not easy, Schleck admits, but he tried to make the best of it.
“If I had to miss a Tour, the one this past year was a good one. The profile of the Tour wasn’t too hard and it wasn’t good for me,” Schleck said. “I followed a few stages of the Tour, but not every day. I tried to get a little bit away from the cycling in order to recover good.”
The 2013 Tour, a mountainous affair long on climbs and short on time trials, seems ideal for a Schleck comeback.
“The 2013 Tour is good for Andy. He will be our leader there,” Guercilena said. “The team will ride for Andy in the Tour. We will support him. We know he has good capacities to make a strong Tour.”
The younger Schleck agrees that it’s “time to win something” and vows to come out guns-a-blazing.
“I am motivated for the Tour. I would like to add something like Ventoux or L’Alpe d’Huez to my palmares,” Schleck said. “That keeps me motivated.”
Whether motivation is enough remains to be seen.