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LEON, Spain (VN) — Before Andy Schleck can think about winning the Tour de France, he needs to finish a race. Any race would be fine.
Wednesday’s untimely departure from the opening stage of the five-day Tour Méditeranéen is being written off to illness, but it’s hard not to imagine that the red flags are starting to wave within RadioShack-Leopard.
RadioShack officials say they’re not worried — at least not yet.
“Andy became sick due to a change in the weather. That’s too bad, because the Tour Med was a good race for him, but we stick to the plan,” RadioShack manager Luca Guercilena told VeloNews. “Andy will keep working and then come back for (Tour of the) Basque Country and the Ardennes to race for results.”
Despite not racing, Schleck is staying with the team at the Tour Med as he takes antibiotics under the team doctor’s supervision.
Guercilena said there would be no change to Schleck’s schedule. Up next is a training camp on the Cote d’Azur before a start at the Tour du Haut Var (February 16-17).
The 27-year-old Schleck is still dealing with the aftermath of injuries suffered in a violent time trial crash in last June’s Critérium du Dauphiné. A fractured coccyx has proven more challenging to overcome than anyone expected.
Schleck said he is no longer hobbled with pain, but it’s been a long time since he’s raced at the top level. The last stage race he managed to finish was the Circuit de la Sarthe in early April 2012.
With his early exit Wednesday, there’s growing speculation about whether he will be ready in time to take on Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Chris Froome (Sky) in the Tour.
Guercilena admits Schleck still has a long way to go before returning to top form, but insists there’s plenty of time before the Tour.
“With all the problems he’s had since his crash, he’s almost lost one year. It’s not easy to come back,” he said. “We have to be realistic. We know he’s missed a lot of time. When you have a bad crash like this, it’s normal. We are confident he can come back.”
Schleck said he’s aiming to have 60 days of racing before the Tour starts in Corsica on June 29.
The Tour Med, with a 25km time trial and an uphill finale at Mont Faron, was an important race simply to get into his legs.
Schleck will start a string of one-day races across France and Italy before his next scheduled stage race at Tirreno-Adriatico in March.
After that, he faces a heavy schedule that includes Critérium International, the Vuelta al País Vasco and all three Ardennes classics before crossing the Atlantic for the Amgen Tour of California in May. He’s hoping the Tour de Suisse will be a final dress rehearsal before starting the Tour.
Will that be enough? Schleck, speaking to VeloNews at the Santos Tour Down Under, certainly hopes so.
He still harbors ambitions for the Tour and refuses to believe that his career is in danger of short-circuiting. Rather, he’s hoping the challenges he’s faced will make him even stronger.
“The best age of a cyclist is between 28 and 32. I hope that I am not an exception,” he said. “My last year made me mentally a lot stronger because I realized this is really what I want to do … winning bike races.”
Schleck obviously has a long way to go before he starts winning races again.
“There are 100 names I have to beat first,” he said. “I go with big ambitions, but I know it’s going to be a bumpy road, because it’s not possible to build up the shape in just three months.”
While it’s still a long way to July, there’s no doubt his first two races of the 2013 season have ended in disappointment.
His season debut at the Tour Down Under saw Schleck struggle to find his place in the peloton only to puncture on the final circuit stage and not finish.
In Australia, he was in an unfamiliar position at the back of the bunch, fighting for position in the peloton, admitting he felt like a “neo-pro.”
“In the peloton, you have five guys on your left, five guys on your right, 50 in front of you, 50 behind you. If you make a mistake, it’s going to hurt,” Schleck said in an interview in Australia. “Riding handlebar-to-handlebar is something you have to get used to.”
After fracturing his coccyx last June, Schleck said the pain was simply unbearable and he was forced to pull the plug for the Tour and then the Vuelta a España. By October, he could fight through longer rides, but it was not until the winter that he could put in consistent five- to six-hour rides.
“What I really needed was riding my bike,” Schleck said. “I was touching the edge of how much I could support the pain, so I did three hours, and then I did four. When I did five hours in a day, I was really proud of that.”
Publicly, Schleck doesn’t sound worried, but he admits that the injury has been much worse than he ever expected.
“In the beginning, I had no doubts that I would come back,” Schleck said. “I said it was going to heal like a collarbone or whatever. Then I got inflammation in the hip and had to get off the bike again. I was kind of desperate.”
If Schleck’s problems continue, he may not be the only one in the RadioShack camp feeling desperate.