Schleck needs time to settle
Although this season is far from over with big races such as the Vuelta a Espana, the Tour of Lombardy and the World Championships still to be won, one of the main talking points of next season has already presented itself. Will Andy Schleck be able to win the Tour de France as part of a new team, and in so doing, defeat his ex-directeur sportif Bjarne Riis and the reigning Tour champion Alberto Contador?
Both riders will be riding for new teams, Contador will be in the unusual position of riding for the team Andy Schleck has just left, while Schleck, along with brother Frank, has moved away from Riis to start a Luxembourg based team. Incidentally, as well as Contador and Schleck, the third rider who finished on the Tour podium will also be riding for a different team next year. Denis Menchov will be making the move from Rabobank to Mauro Gianetti’s Team Geox. This will be the first time ever that all of the podium finishers in the Tour de France have changed teams for the following season.
In a recent Real Peloton podcast Matt Rendell said this when discussing Frank and Andy Schleck’s move to their new Luxembourg team
these guys are at the top of their game, they’re suddenly going to a new set of structures and they’re going to have to bed in there and gel with new team mates
While the Tour de France itself is a test of physical strength, a move to a new team could prove to be an ample test of mental strength for both of the major contenders. As Joe Lindsey pointed out in a recent article, Contador has certainly proved in the past that he has the resolve to deal with the most taxing of challenges.
To summarise, the Spaniard has bounced back from a life threatening injury sustained early in his career. He was implicated in Operation Puerto and witnessed the subsequent demise of his Liberty Seguros team. But he found his feet once more, signing for Johan Bruyneel’s Discovery Channel team. Having won the Tour in 2007, he was dealt the blow that he would be prohibited from defending his crown in 2008.
Again he regrouped and did the most impressive thing possible given the circumstances, he won the other two Grand Tours instead. In 2009, through no fault of his own, he found himself lodged in the middle of the Armstrong/Bruyneel relationship. Instead of letting underhand tactics and snide remarks from within his own team get him down, he got on with his work and won the Tour again. Finally, this year, Contador was faced with the ignominy of every one of his 2009 Tour team mates moving to Armstrong’s Radio Shack. Yet again, he coped admirably and won the Tour for a third time. Contador’s route to becoming a triple Tour winner has most certainly not been plain sailing.
Both Schleck and Contador are now faced with the prospect of trying to win the Tour while riding for a new team. Since the re-introduction of trade teams in 1962*, there have been 47 editions of the Tour. On only six of these occasions has a rider won the Tour during his first year on a new team. It does not bode well for Andy Schleck that two of these six riders are Alberto Contador and Bjarne Riis.
Contador achieved this feat in 2007 during his first year riding for Discovery Channel. Although he won the Tour that year, he was not signed to a team that expected him to challenge for the yellow jersey. When Contador joined the Bruyneel setup, Ivan Basso was the undisputed leader and a major favourite to win the Tour. When Operation Puerto eventually caught up with the Italian, leadership duties were bestowed upon the next rider in line, Levi Leipheimer. Bruyneel expected Leipheimer to challenge for the podium while setting the more modest goal for Contador of the white young rider’s jersey. This allowed Contador to rise to the top of the cycling world uninhibited by pressure and expectation, a luxury which will not be afforded Andy Schleck on his new team.
When Bjarne Riis won the Tour in 1996 he had just left the Gewiss-Ballan team to join Team Telekom. One of his main rivals for the Tour that year was Evgeni Berzin, winner of the Giro in 1994, and runner up in 1995, who was riding for Riis’s former team under the tutelage of Riis’s former team manager. The Russian took the yellow jersey on stage seven only to cede it to Riis two days later. Riis went on to wear it all the way to Paris, while Berzin faded badly to finish the Tour in 20th.
Due to Contador’s impending transfer to Saxo Bank, Schleck will also be faced with the prospect of attempting to defeat a rider being guided by his former team manager. And in Riis, Schleck will be up against a man who knows him extremely well and who has faced, and won, this type of psychological battle before.
Although Schleck has signed up for a brand new team, there will be some elements of continuity. Kim Andersen, a directeur sportif at Saxo Bank since 2004 will be on board to aid the young Luxembourg rider. A handful of Schleck’s current Saxo Bank team mates will also be there. Along with his brother Frank, Jens Voigt, Jacob Fuglsang and Stuart O’Grady are all expected to ride for the new Luxembourg team. However, unlike Contador, Schleck has only ever ridden for one professional team under one team manager. As Matt Rendell suggested, having never gone through this process before, he is going to need time to bed in and gel with new team mates. A further fact which Andy Schleck will not want to hear is that the Tour de France has never been won by a brand new team. As I’m sure Carlos Sastre (Cervelo 2009) and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky 2010) will attest to, it is not an easy task.
There are plenty of subplots which will be interesting to see develop as Contador and Schleck take to the road for their new teams. But most of the problems one could expect to face, Contador and Riis have overcome before, while Andy Schleck has not. The Luxembourg rider will be under pressure to finally deliver the goods, having now placed 2nd in three Grand Tours. Contador will be under pressure of his own to become the 6th rider to win four Tours de France. But Contador has far more experience dealing with the change and upheaval that will be faced by both riders next year. It’s early doors yet, but Contador will likely be far better equipped to win the 2011 Tour de France, and if he does, he will become only the 2nd rider ever, after Greg LeMond in 1989 and 1990, to win the Tour two years in a row with two different teams.
*Trade team’s participation in the Tour was put on hiatus in 1967 and 1968 when international teams competed once more, but the trade teams returned in 1969 and have been present ever since.