NICE, France (VN) — It was a tale of two Schlecks at Paris-Nice.
Frank showed signs of life, attacking over Col d’Eze and coming within a few pedal strokes of a huge victory Sunday. Andy, meanwhile, seemed to be going backward every time the road tipped upward.
The Schleck brothers remain the peloton’s biggest enigma coming into the heart of this season.
Will they be able to return to the top level? That’s a question that’s on everyone’s mind.
“I am optimistic they can be there in the Tour,” Trek sport director Kim Andersen told VeloNews. “They are both working hard. We can hope. That’s what we are working for.”
In 2011, the Schlecks made history by becoming the first brothers to share the Tour de France podium. Since then, both have been mired in setbacks that have threatened to end their respective careers.
Frank, 33, tested positive for a banned substance during the 2012 Tour and served a reduced, one-year suspension, but did not return to racing until this year’s Santos Tour Down Under.
Andy, 28, suffered a painful crash in the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné and has been a shadow of his former self as he’s struggled to overcome the injury and regain race form.
Paris-Nice provided a snapshot of where they are. Based on the week, it’s Frank who seems most intent on recapturing his spot at the top of the sport.
“Once in a while you have to show people that you are back,” Frank said on the team’s website. “I think I did that this week, and I believe that I still have room for improvement over the next couple of weeks.”
Frank looks fit, and he confirmed his fitness with solid racing throughout Paris-Nice. In Sunday’s finale, he attacked over the top of Col d’Eze and gapped the favorites — in a series of surges that saw Andy trail off the back — which was followed by a daring descent. He was caught at the line by the desperately chasing favorites.
Despite the heartbreak loss, Frank could only see the upside.
“I really thought I had [it]. I give it all I had, but they passed me with 20 meters to go,” he said. “No matter what, I come out a winner here. It was important for myself, my confidence, and for my team that they can count on me.”
While Frank proved it on the road, Andy continued to provoke doubts and dismay about his performance, finishing 66th overall.
Speaking to VeloNews, Andy said he was using Paris-Nice to gain fitness ahead of the Ardennes classics. With the recent birth of his first child, he also admitted he was nowhere near top form to challenge for victory in the difficult Paris-Nice parcours.
“It’s something really new in the life,” Andy said of his new child. “I was training quite hard over the winter, but I have been suffering here. I am out [of the] GC, it’s more for me to get the kilometers, and then it’s 12 days at home, Basque Country, and the classics.”
Looking fitter and leaner than he has since his disastrous crash at Dauphiné two years ago, Andy echoed the growing confidence in the Trek team bus.
“The ambitions are big for the Tour,” Andy told VeloNews. “The last two years I have not been up there for a top result, but it’s a new team, a new start. The ambitions are high.”
The cycling world has changed a lot since Andy Schleck’s last of four grand tour podiums in 2011.
Sky has emerged as the peloton’s super team, winning back-to-back Tours with two different riders, first with Bradley Wiggins and then with Chris Froome.
From the outside, there’s a sense that the cycling world has left the Schlecks in the rearview mirror. Yet when he Andy speaks, there’s a quiet confidence.
“I’ve been on the podium four times already, I believe it’s a reality,” he states flatly. “The dream, of course, is to step on the podium. We have to take it from the start, but the sensations are good.”
Insiders at Trek are hopeful Andy has finally turned the corner on his personal odyssey to overcome his painful crash at the 2012 Dauphiné.
“I know he has the first number of our team, but he is not our captain. Andy was never part of our plan,” Andersen said of Paris-Nice. “For sure I hope that he’s back to a good level for the Tour. Things could be better, but he’s better than he was at this time last year. I am still optimistic.”
According to teammates, both Schlecks produced encouraging power numbers during team training camps to ramp up for this season. In January, Frank recounted a story how Andy called him in tears after posting his best power numbers in two years, telling his brother, “I think I am back.”
Fabian Cancellara, who is the central focus of Trek while the Schleck brothers rebuild, said he expects the brothers to be ready for the Ardennes classics and the Tour.
“With his brother, they can go back to this good level,” Cancellara told journalists Monday night. “It’s going to be hard for them. The level of the Tour has grown a lot. There are young riders coming up. There are teams that are working just for [the Tour]. They also must work.”
The first major goal is the upcoming Ardennes classics. With the major one-day classics, there is no hiding in the bunch.
“We are quite happy with Frank, and Andy is better than the first days, coming around slowly,” Andersen concluded. “I am quite sure we will be very happy later on in the year.”
Time will tell which history repeats itself.