SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain (VN) — Perhaps no rider has had a more torturous and drawn out comeback than Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard).
Since crashing out of the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2012 with a cracked sacrum, the younger of the Schleck brothers has endured a long physical and personal odyssey that’s cast doubt over his ability to ever return to the top level again.
Riding to 20th overall at the Tour might not have conjured up much excitement, especially considering that in the three previous Tours he finished he was always in the top-2, but RadioShack took quiet optimism out of France.
Kim Andersen, Schleck’s longtime sport director and confidante, said there were promising glimpses of the former Schleck throughout the three-week Tour.
Andersen points to Schleck’s attacks in the Alps as well as a good second time trial at Chorges, where he was 15th. Those are hardly results that the peloton had become accustomed to seeing from Schleck, but Andersen insisted they were a good sign for the future.
“I hope he can still be better. He was racing at the front, having fun, attacking, that’s a good sign,” Andersen told VeloNews. “We will be back at 100 percent next year.”
Schleck, 28, has been cycling’s “missing man” since the summer of 2012. His efforts to return to racing were delayed due to pain and discomfort on the bike, prompting some to question his professionalism and dedication.
RadioShack, however, took the long view with Schleck, allowing him to take the slow road back to this year’s Tour.
He could barely manage to finish races through the 2013 season, yet his 20th in the Tour was the best of the year.
Schleck, speaking on the team’s website at the end of the Tour, also took optimism out of the race despite being far from the sharp end of the GC fight.
“I am happy it’s over and I don’t have to look at my bike anymore or having people asking me questions all day,” Schleck said. “This is my fifth Tour and my first time off the podium, so it’s like this now, but it’s not the end of the world, especially when you see how far I’ve come in the last year.”
Andersen hopes that Schleck has finally turned the corner.
“Three months ago, he couldn’t even finish a race. Now he was up at the front, so when you look back from where he was, he was good,” Andersen said. “This gives us something to work on.”
The past two seasons have been as tumultuous off the bike as they were on it for the Schleck brothers.
The merger between RadioShack and Leopard-Trek was rife with tension throughout the 2012 season, with former team boss Johan Bruyneel openly questioning Schleck’s desire to train and race.
Following Andy Schleck’s crash at the Dauphiné, older brother Frank tested positive for a diuretic during the 2012 Tour, which later earned him a reduced, one-year ban.
The exit of both Bruyneel and team owner Flavio Becca, the former for links to the Lance Armstrong doping scandal and the latter for selling the team license to Trek, will help smooth the way for the Schlecks in 2014.
Frank, however, is being pushed off the team for the remainder of the season despite having served his one-year ban. That means he will not race for the new-look Trek until next year and will not race the Vuelta a España as he had hoped. Andersen also confirmed that Andy Schleck will not race in the Spanish tour.
Andersen said with a solid footing going into 2014, the team hopes to have the Schleck brothers in top form to take it to Chris Froome and Sky.
“We always dreamed that things would go better, but we see he is moving in the right direction,” Andersen said. “Froome will be strong, but next year we will have Andy and Frank. We can come back and fight again for the yellow jersey.”
Despite the younger Schleck’s continued struggles, Andersen said the team was satisfied with its overall performance during the Tour.
Without a real GC option, the team changed gears and went on the attack instead. It came up with a stage win and two days in yellow with a breakout performance from Jan Bakelants.
“We already said at the start of the Tour that our goal was to win a stage, so it was more than we expected,” Andersen continued. “We chose Jan over some other riders because we knew he could do something. We had a stage win and two days in the yellow jersey, so we can be happy.”
Whether the new-look Trek will settle for stage wins in 2014 remains to be seen. Like other teams, such as Saxo-Tinkoff, the Schlecks will have to dramatically up their game if they seriously want to challenge Sky next year.