LILLE, France (VN) — Andy Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) didn’t even make it to France in the 2014 edition of the race he was once considered a favorite to win.
The 29-year-old Luxembourger crashed heavily on Monday’s third stage, injuring his knee, and did not take the start of stage 4 as the Tour de France landed on French soil after three opening stages in Great Britain.
Schleck’s anonymous exit is a sad reflection of just how far the once-heralded Luxembourger has fallen. For the rider who once went pedal stroke to pedal stroke with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) for supremacy in the Tour, exiting the Tour can only be a major setback, physically and emotionally.
“My knee is too damaged from the crash. This is a huge blow for me,” Schleck posted on his Twitter account.
Trek officials confirmed via Twitter that Schleck would undergo surgery, adding, “the ligaments and meniscus in the right knee are severely damaged.”
Schleck, now 29, was once the wunderkind of cycling, finishing second to confessed doper Danilo Di Luca in his grand tour debut in the 2007 Giro d’Italia. After one bad day in the Pyrénées cost him a chance for the podium in his Tour debut in 2008, Schleck notched three consecutive second places in the following three Tours. At least one yellow jersey seemed all but certain.
But Schleck always seemed to lack that fiery edge and killer instinct that drives so many great Tour riders, even admitting in an earlier interview with VeloNews that if he never won a Tour outright (he was awarded the victory in 2010 following Contador’s clenbuterol disqualification), he would “still be a happy man.”
Ever since Schleck suffered a debilitating crash in the lead-up to the 2012 Tour during the time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné, fracturing his sacrum, he has never been the same rider.
VeloNews spoke with Trek Factory Racing manager Luca Guercilena on the morning before Schleck crashed; Guercilena said Schleck’s problems have been more about finding the motivation to train and perform than any lingering after effects of the 2012 crash.
“I think in the tough years that he just passed through, he missed a bit of the hungriness to be at the top,” Guercilena told VeloNews. “And after you miss out on a recovery, it’s harder to come back. You need to have a different psychological approach. This kind of stress can distract you, and you cannot perform as before.”
Schleck’s easygoing attitude is in sharp contrast to 42-year-old teammate Jens Voigt. The day before Schleck’s crash, Voigt rode into the Tour’s first breakaway, delighting fans and winning the first King of the Mountains jersey.
“I said to my body, ‘OK, are you in?'” Voigt told TV journalists. “Let’s be stupid! Let’s be spectacular! Let’s put on a show.”
Guercilena said the pressure on Schleck is quite different than the attacking Voigt.
“Jens is a different kind of character, but it’s also true the pressure to go into a breakaway is something else than trying to win the Tour de France. That is a very important difference,” Guercilena said. “Going into a breakaway is easier than holding on for 21 days.”
Some have accused former team management of being too soft on the Schleck brothers. When now-banned sport director Johan Bruyneel took over management of RadioShack-Nissan in 2012, he was quick to question Andy Schleck’s work ethic. Others have whispered that Schleck wasn’t putting in the hard miles to gain fitness, choosing instead to go fishing or be close to his newborn child.
Schleck is naturally defensive against that kind of criticism, admitting that it took him longer than expected to recover from his 2012 injury, but insisting he was doing his work.
Speaking with VeloNews in March, Schleck was quietly optimistic that the worst was behind him, and he sounded hopeful he could regain his place at the top of the peloton.
“I’ve been on the podium already four times already, I believe it’s a reality,” Schleck told VeloNews during Paris-Nice. “The ambitions are big for the Tour. 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.”
Schleck clearly had never faced serious setback throughout his career. After turning pro at 20 after a highly touted U23 career, results came quick and easy.
When things went sideways with his 2012 crash, Schleck had a hard time adjusting to a bleaker reality where everything was wine and roses.
“With the talent he had, Andy grew up without having any too much difficulty, and it was easy to make the big results,” Guercilena said. “When he has had some difficulties, it’s something he’s never had to face before, so it’s not easy to reach that level again.”
Earlier this year Schleck failed to finish any of the three Ardennes Classics, and crashed in two of them. After he struggled in the Tour de Suisse last month, Trek wasn’t expecting too much from the younger of the Schleck brothers coming into the Tour this year. When it named its Tour roster last week, Trek tapped Frank Schleck and Haimar Zubeldia as its GC captains, slotting Andy into a helper’s role.
Hours before Schleck crashed Monday, VeloNews asked Guercilena about the future, whether Schleck would simply evolve into a super domestique, or might someday return to fight for the yellow jersey again.
“We are now adjusting the situation, and we are giving him a more relaxed approach, to focus to help, instead of being the leader, so he does not have too much pressure on himself,” Guercilena said. “On the condition he has now, for sure, it is more helpful for him to not have the pressure to win. For the future, we cannot say … Time is going by fast.”
Up for contract at the end of the 2014 season, Schleck will be under pressure to prove his worth.