In professional bike racing, this was supposed to be the year of triumph for the Schleck brothers of Luxembourg. Andy, the younger of the two at 27, has finished second in the Tour de France for the last three years, though he was recently awarded the top spot for 2010, “posthumously” on paper, when Alberto Contador was stripped of the title for doping. Schleck admitted that winning the Tour means little unless it happens on the road. This year, when he and his brother Fränk (age 32) ended up on the Radioshack-Nissan-Trek team thanks to a merger, things looked rosy. The Director Sportif of Radioshack is Johan Bruyneel, who guided Lance Armstrong to seven consecutive Tour victories, and also helped Alberto Contador to one of his legitimate ones. The merger team is full of strong veteran riders and some good up-and-coming youngsters.
Odds of Andy mounting the podium on the Champs Élysées as a true winner looked pretty good. He demonstrated in last summer’s Tour that he was capable of a big performance in the mountains when he attacked on the penultimate climb of stage 18, the Col d’Izoard, and rode solo up the Col du Galibier, one of the sternest climbs of any Tour, to take over two minutes out of his chasing rivals. He cracked Contador for good, and had he been able to put in a strong time trial he would have defeated Cadel Evans for the overall victory.
As a potential on-the-road tour champion, however, Andy’s Achilles’ heel has always been time trialing. Contador became a championship contender at the Tour when he improved his skills in that discipline under Bruyneel. Andy’s past efforts to improve his contra-la-montre work were feeble and essentially unsuccessful, but his new team and DS Bruyneel figured to do him a world of good, working on the road and in the wind tunnel to adjust nuances of position and develop specific aerobic and muscular strength to the maximum, as he’d done with Lance.
Not so, however. Andy’s on-and-off 2012 spring racing, more off than on because of injuries and illnesses, collapsed in a heap at the Critérium du Dauphiné two weeks ago. In the time trial Andy, using an aero disc on his rear wheel as is fairly common in the ITT, got blown off his bike in a crosswind. Schleck is light, but it’s not unknown for heavier riders, like the perennially overweight Jan Ullrich, to get blown off bikes. Nevertheless, the real problem is that Schleck is not a great bike handler, as is shown in his inept descending abilities, not to mention his famous dropped chain in the 2010 Tour. He just didn’t handle the aero disc very well. The consequence is that he has a broken pelvis and will not even compete in the Tour, much less win it.
On top of this somewhat self-created bad luck Andy has lacked the toughness and resolve, the passionate determination, of a real champion. This factor has created real friction with Bruyneel, who got used to seeing the fierce will of Lance Armstrong (check out the training episodes in the DVD The Road to Paris, where Lance refuses to quit a mountain climb until confronted with 6-foot snowdrifts, and then decides he’ll just ride down to the bottom and climb back a second time instead).
And that’s where Fränk comes in. He has functioned as his brother’s main support rider for several years, but Bruyneel perceived that such a situation had become counterproductive, and split up the brothers for most of the spring schedule. Thus Fränk was riding the Tour de Suisse instead of the Dauphiné last week. This tough tour, another stage race tuneup for the Tour de France, finished with two mountaintop stages rather than a ceremonial ride at the end of the week. Yesterday saw Fränk begin the last stage only 14 seconds behind, having picked up over a minute with a strong attack on the penultimate stage’s final climb. On the next-to-last climb yesterday he put in another strong attack, and he lengthened it to over a minute lead on the descent. Then he seemed to run out of both steam and will, almost sitting up to allow the chasing group, including the race leader, to catch him before the final climb. On that last climb, which finishes with about 2 km of false flat, he did not even try to attack on the steep part and so finished in the leader’s group, still 14 seconds behind. If Lance Armstrong had a minute gap and the race lead on the road, there would be no way he’d sit up or let anybody catch him. Lance knew how to go into overdrive, how to punish his body to achieve victory.
Neither of the Schlecks has that fierce resolve, that focused will to triumph, that makes a winner, a “cannibal” like Eddy Merckx, a “badger” like Bernard Hinault. Frank might finish in the top ten in the Tour, no mean feat. He’s 31st in the UCI rankings right now, and was 10th at the end of last season. Andy might do OK in the Olympics if he recovers, though probably not podium-level OK. But victory? I think they just don’t want it quite badly enough.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.