BILBAO, Spain (VN) — In his first public admission that things are clearly not going his way, Andy Schleck suggested Wednesday that he will not be ready to fight for the yellow jersey at the 2013 Tour de France.
The RadioShack-Leopard star has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons since crashing out of the Critérium du Dauphiné last summer. Since then, he’s struggled to finish races and was publicly outed in a controversial episode when a French politician claimed he saw Schleck drunk in a hotel elevator in March.
Speaking to VeloNews before the start of the third stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), Schleck admitted for the first time he might not be ready come July.
“I cannot dream about winning the Tour this year,” Schleck said. “I want to be competitive in the peloton again. If it’s 40th place today or work for the team today, if I am happy with it, that’s what’s important now. I can only take small steps to go up. I believe I have the good base now. I have to work on that step-by-step. Don’t take two big steps …”
VeloNews asked Schleck to clarify, “So you’re saying you don’t think you can win the Tour this year?”
“I don’t go as the leader of the race, no. I haven’t been there last year,” he said. “There are others who have the weight on their shoulders now. For me, it’s important that I have the full support of the team. We’ll see how it goes in July.”
Comeback harder than expected
Schleck, 27, admitted that his road back from fracturing his sacrum last June has been bumpier and longer than he could have ever imagined.
Before his high-speed crash in the time trial stage last June, Schleck had largely avoided serious injury throughout his career.
The injury and ensuing complications have knocked him back time and again. After forfeiting the 2012 Tour and later the Vuelta a España, Schleck only managed to return to racing in time for the season-closer at the Tour of Beijing, which he abandoned.
Following a frustrating winter of training, the setbacks have continued to pile up this spring. His string of DNFs began anew at the Santos Tour Down Under and continued.
Only at the GP di Camaiore, in late February, did he finally manage to complete his first race since the 2012 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“It’s harder than I thought to come back,” Schleck said. “You can ride a lot of kilometers on your own, but when you’re back in the peloton, it’s something else. I won’t say frustrating; it’s been harder than I thought.
“I haven’t experienced this before in my career. It’s something new. It’s the life of a cyclist. You have ups and downs in life. When you’re down, it takes a long time to come back up again. I still love riding my bike. I really enjoy racing.”
‘No comment’ on Munich reports
Schleck’s inconsistency has drawn flack from critics, who have been quick to accuse him of being everything from a slacker to unprofessional.
Things reached a new low last month when a French politician posted on Facebook that he saw Schleck drunk in a hotel elevator.
Schleck only shook his head when VeloNews queried about the veracity of those reports.
“I made my comments about that. It’s a ridiculous story. It’s not the first story about me and I’m sure it’s not the last one. I am not going to comment on it more,” he said. “It’s something someone put on Facebook. Come on. Stories like that, those negative stories, I don’t concentrate on negative things. This story, I didn’t even think about it for a single day.”
‘I’m not done’
The younger of the Schleck brothers is obviously facing challenges he’s never endured before in his otherwise blessed career.
Most agree he has the most natural-born talent in the peloton. Some, however, question his ability to train and to make the necessary sacrifices required of the modern peloton.
There’s been a barrage of negativity, something that Schleck says he steers clear of.
“I don’t want to look or concentrate on the negative things,” he said. “What happened last year, how the winter was, the past results, all of that … I just concentrate on the positive, good things.”
He insisted there is light at the end of the tunnel and said he’s riding “almost pain-free.”
“I am not done,” he said emphatically about his racing future. “I know I am a step behind. I have been working a lot these months. Slowly I have been getting better. I never expected it to be easy. I couldn’t work the whole winter like I wanted to, with the injury.
“I touch wood. I am healthy now. I can ride now almost pain-free. I still have to work a lot.”
Ardennes in doubt
Simply finishing the demanding Basque Country tour would be victory enough. The weeklong race is universally hailed as one of the most difficult of the season.
Next on the radar are the Ardennes classics, where Schleck admits he is not anywhere near the form he had when he won Liège in a daring solo attack over the Roche aux Faucons in 2009. That seems like a long time ago.
“I don’t know if I am going to be able to compete for the best,” Schleck said of the Ardennes. “I take it day-by-day to get the best possible shape for the classics and we’ll see how far I can go.”
After Belgium, he’s sticking to his planned schedule: Amgen Tour of California, a training camp, Tour de Suisse, and the Tour.
Schleck seems to be weathering the setbacks and frustration. The struggles over the past year have given him a new edge, something he says he wants to turn back into the bike once he’s fully healthy and strong again.
“When I am good, everybody stands behind you. When things are not going [good for] you, then you see who truly stands behind you,” he said. “I want to come back to who I was and I want to be better than I was before. There is a lot of work still to do. I have to [admit] it. I have the wind in my face. I am fighting against it.”