The annals of cycling have been largely devoid of the citizens of Luxembourg. Until recently overshadowed by the neighbors in Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland, they became known in the modern era cycling first through the accomplishments of the now retired Kim Kirchen, and more recently through the achievements of two of the top riders of the current generation: Andy and Fränk Schleck of Leopard-Trek. A talented pair, the brothers Schleck have put up what little fight there has been against Alberto Contador in the last two editions of the Tour.
Nary a bad word is spoken in the cycling press about the personalities of the Schleck’s. Kind, amiable, loyal are all adjectives attached to descriptions of them. Aggressive, cunning and tactically savvy, however, are far less often found attached to their names, thus far leaving them perpetual also-rans in the grandest of grand tours.
Considered by most to be the more talented of the Schleck brothers, Andy Schleck is being tipped by as the favorite for 2011′s Tour de France. With Alberto Contador having triumphed in a difficult Giro d’Italia, there are questions about both his fatigue and fitness levels headed in to the Tour. With such a mountainous profile, the second best climber world may find himself just a little better than the fatigued #1. Factor in the lack of a prologue and fairly limited time trial miles, and Andy’s biggest weakness, his lack of prowess in a race against the clock, may become less of an albatross.
Andy’s year to date has been decent, and seems to have been planned to put him in peak form for the Tour de France. Late April and early May saw him a presence in the spring races, notching a third place in a Liege-Bastogne-Liege to his brother’s second. Critics quick noted, however, that neither was capable of capitalizing on the two-to-one tactical advantage they possessed over ultimate winner Philippe Gilbert. While his initial performance in the recent Tour de Suisse led many to question his form, they were silenced by his demonstration of climbing prowess on stage 7, where a surprise attack put gave him second place in the stage, above a worthy set of competitors. Andy, it would seem, is ready to fight.
2010′s most memorable Tour event, race-wise, may be stage 15′s Chain Gate fiasco. On the attack in the yellow jersey, 3km from the summit of Port de Balès, a poorly executed shift resulted in Schleck dropping his chain. With Schleck left helpless, Contador accelerated by, ultimately gaining 8 seconds on Schleck and stripping the yellow jersey from his shoulders. Where many of the sport’s champions use adversity as a motivator for comeback, the “fire in my belly” cited by Schleck due to the perceived violation committed by attacking the yellow jersey whilst in mechanical distress seems to have been quickly extinguished, as shortly thereafter he publicly asked the French public, whose fire seemed to burn a little stronger, to stop jeering his rival. In a race that requires nerves of steel and smarts both on and off the bike, Schleck seemed to come up short.
Andy’s other weakness may is also his greatest ally – brother Fränk Schleck. Another talented climber with miserable time trialing skills, Fränk has been an indispensable factor in his brother’s Tour ambitions. Himself a former GC contender, Fränk;s stated goal since 2009′s edition is to putt his brother on the top step. His form this year has been more impressive than his brother’s, with an overall win at Criterium International, top 10 showings in Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and seventh in the Tour de Suisse.
Where Fränk is concerned with delivering a GC win to Andy, Andy is concerned about putting his brother on the podium step next to him. His frequent look-backs to locate his brother while attacking have been frequently noted, with his critics suggesting that until Andy can accept the idea that reaching the top step may require abandoning his brother’s quest for second or third, he’ll never succeed. 2008′s stage 15 setup by Andy that allowed Fränk to launch an attack that put him in yellow is the model the two will need to follow – sacrifice the position of one for the benefit of the other.
Leopard-Trek field’s one of the strongest in the Tour, with a combined 52 tours raced, a staggering 18 stages won, and 40 days in yellow. They bring an experienced team, dedicated to bringing Andy a win. With the stars seemingly aligned for Andy Schleck’s talents, this may be the year he can wear the jersey all the way to Paris.
Man of the Hour: Frank Schleck. Andy lost Fränk to a crash early in 2010′s tour. If he’s going to win, he’ll need Fränk to both help pace him in the mountains, and set him up for any successful attack against Contador – Fränk softening him up to allow the counter attack by Andy.
On the Hot Seat: Andy Schleck. His critics say he’s soft, incapable of attacking and dropping an in form Contador. With Contador in questionable form, however, it’s time to deliver.
Also On the Hot Seat: Leopard-Trek/Bryan Nygaard. With rumors swirling about possible team mergers, success in the Tour may see Leopard land a title sponsor for next year. Fail, and who knows if their wealthy benefactors will be willing to foot the bill on their own.
Up-and-Comer: None. Their time is now. This is a Tour perfectly aligned with their talents, and they may be hard pressed to find a better opportunity for a win.