Back in the day, say 2011 or so, any conversation of the Tour de France was synonymous with the Schleck brothers.
The Luxembourgers were front and center in the quest for the yellow jersey, and they made history as the first brothers to share the podium in 2011.
Today, after a string of injuries and racing bans, not to mention questions about their professionalism, all that talk of the yellow jersey seems like a very long time ago.
New faces dominate the banter about the yellow jersey. Chatter about the Tour centers around Sky, Chris Froome, and a growing horde of young talents, led by Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing).
For 2014, the Schlecks and their newly branded team, Trek Factory Team, the coming season is critical to regain their place among contenders for the yellow jersey.
“For the Schlecks, and for us, it will be a challenging season,” Trek general manager Luca Guercilena told VeloNews. “It’s been a few years since they were at the top level. We believe they can come back.”
Time to prove it on the road
The mantra that the Schlecks, especially Andy Schleck, will once again be the Tour rider that he once was, seems to be wearing thin.
Ever since his fateful crash in heavy crosswinds during the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné, when he was badly banged up and fractured his sacrum, Schleck has been a shadow of his former self.
Following his breakout second place in the 2007 Giro d’Italia at the ripe age of 22, behind the now banned-for-life Danilo Di Luca, Schleck became cycling’s prince in waiting.
It was only a matter of time before the happy-go-lucky Schleck would win the Tour. And he came tantalizing close, riding to second in three consecutive Tours from 2009-2011.
Though he was later awarded victory in the 2010 Tour following Alberto Contador’s positive for clenbuterol, Schleck still wants to win one on the road.
Yet the recovery from his crash has taken longer than he or anyone could have ever expected. The 2012 season was a wash, and he raced only at the Tour of Beijing late that season in what became a string of DNFs and abandons that border lined on embarrassing.
Dogged by biting pain that made it uncomfortable to sit on the bike, let alone train effectively, his efforts at a comeback were littered with setbacks.
Some started to question Schleck’s professionalism, and a few wondered out loud if he would ever return to the top.
Yet a determined Schleck made it through the 2013 Tour, riding to a season-best 20th, and showed glimpses that the worst is behind him. At least that’s what Trek and Guercilena are banking on this season.
“For Andy, he has not been at his level since 2011. I think he knows that 2014 is a big season for him. He realizes he must show the peloton where he is,” Guercilena said. “That’s the only way for a rider. I say to the guys, ‘there’s not a lot to say, just speak with the pedals, because otherwise you’re just talking.'”
Schleck seems to have taken the advice to heart, and has been quietly working during the fall to enter the 2014 season on a much higher level of fitness and depth that he was clearly missing this year.
And then there’s Frank
While Andy is still struggling to come back from his career-threatening injury, Frank has had his own demons to fight.
The elder of the Schleck brothers tested positive during the 2012 Tour for xipamide. Schleck, who had previously ran afoul with contacts with Operacion Puerto ringleader Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, swore up and down he was not taking anything purposefully.
The Luxembourg cycling federation bought it, and handed down a reduced, one-year ban. That kept him out of the 2013 Tour, but he was still hoping to return to racing, including a run at the Vuelta an España.
A spat between former team owner Flavio Becca over Schleck’s contract, however, saw him off the team for the remainder of the year. The team has been opaque about why Schleck did not return — one source said it was over money — but the upshot is that Schleck has not raced since the 2012 Tour.
“I think Frank will have a good season. He’s excited to be back,” Guercilena said. “He wanted to race this season, but for many reasons, he could not, so he will be focused on 2014.”
According to Guercilena, he’s not seen the Schleck brothers as motivated as they are now in several seasons. He said they are more motivated than ever to regain their position among the peloton’s most reliable performers in the Ardennes and the grand tours.
“I expect big results from them,” he said. “They’re both motivated to make it back to the top, to show everyone where they belong.”
And the racing calendar? Guercilena was evasive, hinting that even the Giro d’Italia could be in the cards, but would only confirm that the Tour will remain the central focus. The team is meeting this month in Spain to hammer out a structure for the upcoming season.
“We have not discussed a specific calendar yet, but for sure we know that the Tour is the race that they have shown where they can be on the podium,” he said. “That will be the goal for the season. We still have to discuss how to arrive there.”
Frank is confirmed to mark his return at the Santos Tour Down Under in January.
The pressure is on
Tongues will be wagging if the Schlecks cannot manage to return to form. Some will be wondering if the Schlecks will be able to race with the best in “new cycling,” a suggestion that infuriates both of them.
Age is becoming an issue for both. Andy has always been the young kid on the block but he turns 29 next season, while Frank will be 34 in April, and his best years could well be behind.
In 2014, there will be plenty more reasons to have pressure to step up.
Trek stepped up to save the Leopard team following the departure of major sponsors, first with Nissan in the wake of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, and then RadioShack, which did not extend its title sponsorship at the end of this season.
Luxembourg construction magnate Flavio Becca, who formed the team built around the Schleck brothers in 2011, happily washed his hands of the expensive project, selling the UCI WorldTour license to Trek for an undisclosed amount of money last fall.
Guercilena is downplaying the team’s pressure on the Schlecks, however, insisting that the team’s primary focus will be built around Fabian Cancellara and the team’s highly successful classics program, as well as the development of promising young talent such as Bob Jungels, and the Van Poppel brothers.
“If everything goes well, we can be quite competitive. Yet as we know from 2012, a couple of things can go wrong and put an end to all your plans,” Guercilena said, referring to the washout season in which Cancellara crashed out during the classics weeks before the Schlecks unraveled.
“It’s always better to have two arrows to shoot than one,” he said.
Also, Guercilena downplays the notion that it could be now or never for the Schlecks.
“The pressure is higher and higher, especially since they have not been at their level since 2011, but on the team, we focus on the work and we try to avoid this type of pressure,” he said. “We will give him confidence and support, and we expect that they will put the work into the pedals. It will be a big season for both of them.”
So what’s the best-case scenario for the Schleck brothers? For Guercilena, it would be putting them back into the position where they were in the front row for the fight for the yellow jersey rather than just being sideline players.
“Andy and Frank have been on the podium, and they did it together in 2011, so the next step for them is to win the Tour,” he said. “I believe if they are both in the right condition, and stay healthy, they can be in the fight for the Tour. That would be super for us.”
Talking big is one thing. Guercilena, the Schlecks, and everyone else know it’s time to prove it on the road.