AJACCIO, France (VN) — After three days on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, RadioShack-Leopard has been one of the revelations of the 2013 Tour de France, and Andy Schleck has shown encouraging signs that he is on his way back to counting among cycling’s elite.
Without Fabian Cancellara and with a hobbled Schleck, RadioShack’s pre-Tour vibe was hardly one to excite the masses. Yet the team is leaving Corsica after three hard days of racing with a stage win, the yellow jersey, and Schleck very much in the game.
“Right now, things are going great. The team won a stage and has the yellow jersey. We’ll see what happens tomorrow, but we will do a good time trial,” Schleck said Monday before boarding a flight to Nice. “It’s been a great start to the Tour for us.”
RadioShack came to this Tour a much different team than it was in recent editions of the race. Schleck is in the race, but is still working on regaining his top form after breaking his pelvis in a heavy crash in June 2012. Gone are Cancellara, who is saving his matches for a run at the rainbow jersey in Italy, and Chris Horner, who underwent knee surgery and will not race again until later this season.
The squad was also rocked by the failed doping test of Fränk Schleck during last year’s Tour. He received a reduced ban, but won’t return until after this year’s race.
Against this backdrop, the team came to the Tour with modest expectations, yet high hopes.
When unsung Belgian Jan Bakelants held off the pack in Sunday’s second stage to win and claim the yellow jersey by one second, the RadioShack nine blew past their modest expectations.
And even more importantly, Andy Schleck has survived the opening three stages in promising position.
Schleck has struggled through a year racked with injury, setbacks, disappointment, and frustration since crashing out of the Critérium du Dauphiné. Schleck has struggled in every race so far this season, but he’s been surprisingly hanging in there across the hills of Corsica.
“I know the Pyrénées are going to be very hard, but I am feeling good,” Schleck said. “The real truth is still to come ahead of us, but it’s important to get through these first stages in good position. It was up, down, left, right, but the team did a great job protecting me.”
RadioShack brass is taking quiet confidence from Schleck’s performance so far through the Tour. Although the opening three stages did not feature major climbs, Schleck did avoid crashes and being gapped in the peloton — modest steps forward in his return to the level that saw him thrice finish second at the Tour before he inherited Alberto Contador’s 2010 title.
Schleck returned to mainland France Monday night with his GC options intact.
“I believe Andy can make a grand Tour, but we will not know how he really is until the Pyrénées,” said RadioShack director Alain Gallopin. “Things are looking good, he is getting through these stages without too much trouble. The Tour will be won in the final week, because the final week is very difficult, but we expect him to be getting better as the Tour goes along.”
Bakelants said he was impressed with how Schleck had stepped up.
“On the steep climb [Sunday], I saw a very strong Andy. We all believe he can make a great Tour, and he is our captain,” Bakelants said. “Even my stage win and yellow jersey will help him. It will take the weight of expectation off his shoulders. If we did not have this, then everyone would be looking to Andy. Now we have this in our pocket and there is less pressure for Andy.”
The next test for Schleck is to arrive to the Pyrénées in one piece. The coming stages through the Côte d’Azur are laden with hidden traps, including high winds, heat, and dangerous sprints.
The real Schleck will be revealed once the road tips upward in the Pyrénées. If he is back, it could make things very interesting at the sharp end of the GC race in this Tour.