April 5, 2011 by Irish Peloton
A world class stage racer should be winning stage races
He has finished on the podium of the Tour de France. He has finished on the podium of the Giro d’Italia. He has won the best young rider’s jersey in both the Tour and the Giro. He is one of the most prodigious stage racing talents to emerge in the last decade. His name is Andy Schleck and he has never won a professional stage race.
It’s almost hard to believe, but it’s true. As an amateur, Schleck won the five stage Fléche du Sud in 2004 (a race once won by Neil Martin, Dan Martin’s Dad!), but since then he has never stood on the top step of the podium at the end of a stage race.
So the obvious question is, why?
Andy Schleck started his professional career in 2005 at the tender age of 19. For the first couple of years of his career he was simply getting used to riding in the professional peloton and helping out his more experienced team-mates such as his brother Frank and Jens Voigt. But even though he was never burdened with leadership responsibilities, his potential was obvious to those around him.
In the August 2007 issue of Pro Cycling, Bryan Nygaard, now team manager of Leopard-Trek and then team press officer of Team CSC, recounts a tale about Andy Schleck taking part in the 2005 Tour de Georgia:
It was the hardest stage of the race, and one of Andy’s first pro races. On the final climb, the lead group was down to a few riders. Andy was there with Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, Bobby Julich and Tom Danielson, but he was barely hanging on. He eventually got dropped, was caught by the second group, then lost touch with them and joined the third group.
A minute or two later, Bobby radioed the team car to say that he had a problem with his derailleur and that he wanted to change bikes. Problem, big problem, because the car carrying his spare bike was behind Andy’s group and couldn’t go ahead. It all went quiet for a second, then Andy’s voice came over the radio: ‘Don’t worry Bobby, I’ll bring you your bike’. And so he did; he went back to the team car, got on Bobby’s bike, rode away from the third group into the second group, then away from them, then up to the leaders. Armstrong turned around, took one look at Andy and exclaimed: ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ He may not have been too impressed but, for the rest of us, that was the moment we realised just how good Andy was.
In the same magazine, Cyrille Guimard, who nurtured Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond and was also Schleck’s team manager at the amateur VC Roubaix team in 2004, said that Schleck along with these three multiple Tour de France winners was one of the four ‘super-talents’ that he had encountered in his career.
Schleck came good on his promise as a major talent when he finished runner-up behind Danilo Di Luca at the 2007 Giro d’Italia, his Grand Tour debut. He followed that up in 2008 with a solid 6th place in the Tour de Suisse before going on to make his first appearance in the Tour de France at the age of 23. But despite being one of only nine riders in the race who had managed to finish on the podium of a Grand Tour, Schleck was third in the pecking order of his own team behind brother Frank, and eventual winner Carlos Sastre.
After Schleck’s initiation to the Tour de France in 2008, Sastre moved on and Frank seemed to realise that he wasn’t the best cyclist in his own family anymore. So Andy became the leader of the Saxo Bank team and remains so at the new Leopard-Trek team. But in both 2009 and 2010, Schleck seems to have adopted the Bradley Wiggins 2010 approach to the Tour de France and ignored the possibility of competing seriously in any other race, prefering to save everything for the Tour in July. Okay, he did win Liege-Bastogne-Liege which most riders would kill to have on their palmarés, but we’re talking stage racing here.
Even this year already, Frank has won the Criterium International, and the team formation, as it was lined out along the road in the Tour of the Basque Country yesterday, suggests that Frank is once more the team leader for this race. Andy must be saving himself once more for the Tour. While Andy puts all his eggs into one big as-yet-empty basket, his contemporaries have been winning stage races.
Vincenzo Nibali has won the Vuelta a Espana, Roman Kreuziger has won the Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse and Robert Gesink has just won the Tour of Oman.
But Andy Schleck is not the only rider to have achieved the odd combination of a place on the Tour de France podium despite never winning a stage race in his career. In the past 50 years there have actually been six others who share in Schleck’s barren stage racing palmarés.
Julio Jiminez finished runner-up to Roger Pingeon in the 1967 Tour. The Spanish climber built his career on winning King of the Mountains jerseys, bagging three in both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana, but never finished on the podium of a stage race as the overall winner.
The following year, Herman van Springel also finished as Tour de France runner-up as he was pipped in the final time trial by Jan Janssen. 1968 was the first Tour following the death of Tom Simpson, which meant the route was made to be considerably less mountainous than in previous years. This led to Janssen and van Springel being afforded a golden opportunity to win the Tour de France, as they are both essentially classics riders. So perhaps it’s not overly surprising to learn that van Springel never won a stage race.
Three rather uncelebrated riders finished on the Tour podium in the early eighties, Raymond Martin, Robert Alban and Peter Winnen, all of whom finished their careers without ever winning a stage race. But perhaps the most surprising rider to have achieved this rather odd feat in the past is the Frenchman Richard Virenque. Despite winning a record seven polka-dot jerseys and many mountain stages in the Tour, his career was most certainly based on being a stage chaser and not a stage racer.
A further stat which emerged upon carrying out this Andy Schleck related research, was that there are also two riders for which almost the opposite is true. That is to say, there are two men who have actually won the Tour de France, the pinnacle of stage racing, but have never won any other stage race. The first of these is Oscar Pereiro, Tour winner in 2006 after Floyd Landis tested positive. Although Pereiro’s victory will be remembered for being ‘default’ he was always a decent stage racer, finishing in the Tour top 10 on four separate occasions, so the fact that he never won another stage race is certainly unusual.
But infinitely more remarkable is the second rider – Carlos Sastre. Yes. The Spaniard has one of the most enviable Grand Tour records of all time. He has won the Tour de France. He has finished on a Grand Tour podium five times. He has finished in the top 10 of a Grand Tour 15 times. He rode all three last year and finished in the top 20 in all of them. At one stage, between 2006 and 2009, he rode seven Grand Tours in a row, not once finishing below fourth place. And yet, the 2008 Tour de France remains Carlos Sastre’s only stage race victory.
Of course, an obvious difference between the aforementioned riders and Andy Schleck, is that Schleck is still only 25 years old and has many years and races ahead of him to put this stat right. But I’m reminded of something Dan Martin said after winning the Tour of Poland last year:
Winning the stage was incredible but I found it difficult to celebrate – I was in the leader’s jersey with two stages to go in a Pro Tour stage race! I was nervous, until I returned to the hotel and saw the commitment and motivation in my team-mates’ eyes.
Hopefully, this experience of being in a leader’s jersey will stand to Dan Martin, as leading a race brings with it a flood of pressure. A pressure which Andy Schleck should make a serious effort at getting more used to.
Obviously leading the Tour de France is incalculably more pressure-filled than leading the Tour of Poland, but thus far in Schleck’s career, the six days he spent in the Maillot Jaune last year remains the only time he has ever worn the leader’s jersey in a professional race.
A major hurdle for Schleck in achieving a stage race victory is time-trialling, a discipline in which he is famously inept. But there are plenty of events on the cycling calendar without time trials (or without long ones anyway) which Schleck could target and use to gain confidence in leading and winning stage races.
Of course, all this being said, Schleck may yet be awarded the win in the 2010 Tour de France which would render all of these observations moot. Nevertheless, winning is a habit, one which Schleck has yet to adopt in his short career so far.