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With strong words, RadioShack to start over after Ardennes

Schlecks and company return to square one for the Tour after classics disappointments

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After closing out a spring classics campaign that saw them win one race, lose their captain to a broken collarbone and leave the Belgian Ardennes without hardware, RadioShack-Nissan is reeling.

“This is absolutely not the result we expected from the team,” said Johan Bruyneel at the finish of Liège–Bastogne–Liège on Sunday. “If we consider that today is the end of the first part of the season, here at the end of the classics, we are far from satisfied.”

Fabian Cancellara took the team’s lone classics victory, in the semi-classic Strade Bianche in March, but crashed in a feed zone at E3 Harelbeke and suffered a fractured collarbone in a feed zone crash at the Tour of Flanders. The big Swiss was on top form, having shown his strength pulling Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) to the line at Milan-San Remo, but for the second year-in-a-row, Cancellara would leave the northern classics without a stone for his garden.

“We had a good start with Milan San Remo, but then once Fabian was injured, we lost hope for those classics,” said Bruyneel. “Next we looked to the Ardennes classics and we hoped to see improvement here. But all of it was far from what we expected. [On Sunday] we had no one in the top 20 and we can’t be happy with that.”

The burden for the hilly classics in the Dutch Limburg and Belgian Ardennes fell on the shoulders of Fränk Schleck and Chris Horner. Schleck’s brother Andy has seen a slow start to 2012, abandoning Paris-Nice with illness and the Vuelta Catalunya in horrendous weather conditions. He arrived to the Amstel Gold Race a week ago without any expectation of repeating his late solo bid to the Cauberg or his podium in Sunday’s classics curtain call.

At Liège, the Schlecks suffered mightily in the rain/snow mix that fell on the peloton just as the racing heated up at La Redoute. No RadioShack riders made the final group that eventually gave chase to Nibali and winner Maxim Iglinsky (Astana). Fränk Schleck was the team’s top finisher in 23rd, in a group at 2:11 that included teammate Maxime Monfort. Horner abandoned with hands so frozen he could not brake and Bruyneel said that at one point the elder Schleck drifted back to the team car shaking from the cold.

Monfort said he was in survival mode in the wet, cold weather when the race arrived to La Redoute and saw the first real attack.

“We were thinking more about getting our rain jackets instead of moving up. Of course we should have taken more clothing before that moment,” he said. “Fränk was feeling confident all week. I know him very well now and I felt he could do a good result… But in my mind I was thinking about getting warm, not getting a result.”

Andy Schleck spoke afterwards as if the Liège disappointment may be a turning point.

“It just didn’t go as planned,” he said. “There were crashes of course, but we can’t always be blaming the weather. We have to start dealing with the situations better that develop during the race since it’s the same for everyone.

“I can’t say this has been a bed of roses; it has not been a good year for us. We have not been lazy; everyone has worked hard. But we cannot blame anyone else. We can only blame ourselves.”

That is ownership that Andy Schleck has not publicly expressed in the past. The younger Schleck brother has been criticized in the press for complaining about riders attacking on dangerous descents and race organizers’ route choices. His statement on Sunday, although brief, may signal the shift in Schleck that Bruyneel hoped for when he merged his RadioShack program with Leopard-Trek late in 2011.

Bruyneel’s comments were strong and also somewhat unusual. The Belgian team boss has rarely spoken out in disappointment with his teams’ results, but rarely has a Bruyneel-run team made it to April 22 with just two European wins on its palmarès. The tally is Bruyneel’s lowest since 2003, when Victor Hugo Peña’s Murcia stage win was the lone victory for the U.S. Postal Service on the continent before Lance Armstrong took a stage and the GC at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.

But during the Postal Service era, Bruyneel’s squads only won more than a single spring race in Europe twice. In 2001 the team took two early wins and George Hincapie became the only American to win Gent-Wevelgem. In 2004, the Postal Service’s final year, the squad scored nine early European wins, including Armstrong’s GC victory at the Volta ao Algarve and Hincapie’s GC at the Three Days of De Panne. Since 2004, Bruyneel has averaged 7.6 wins a season before April 22. The bulk of those victories between 2007 and 2009 came from Alberto Contador, however.

The single-win 2003 spring campaign is notable also for the fact that it preceded Armstrong’s record tying fifth Tour de France win. That win was Armstrong’s most difficult, but he pulled on the maillot jaune in L’Alpe d’Huez after the race’s second mountain stage and never let go. This year’s RadioShack squad is all-in for Andy Schleck at the Tour de France — or so management and riders say. Is the sour taste of the Ardennes enough motivation to finally land Andy Schleck on the final podium in Paris? (He recently inherited the 2010 Tour title when Alberto Contador was sanctioned for a doping violation.)

Bruyneel said the team would start from square one looking ahead to July, when Schleck will have to survive 100 kilometers of time trials if he hopes to unseat defending champ Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and hold off challengers like Bradley Wiggins (Sky).

“But here at the first part of the season it is a not a success for us. I hope this will serve as motivation for the second part of the season,” said Bruyneel. “If we look back there isn’t a good explanation for why things haven’t worked, other than that both of the Schlecks have had some illness this season. So we have to use this lack of results as motivation and tell ourselves that we start from zero and try to get back to earning good results.”

As Bruyneel and Armstrong proved in 2003, a spring campaign low on results doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for the Tour de France. And rest assured, Andy Schleck would love to have a Tour title to call his “most difficult.”