Move over Frank Schleck
The future of Alberto Contador still hangs in the balance. A decision by the Spanish Cycling Federation is expected some time between next week and the middle of February. Ultimately, after the inevitable appeals process has run its course, even if he is handed a reduced ban due to the ‘accidental’ nature of ingestion, the likelihood is that the Spaniard will miss this year’s Tour de France. Consequently there will become one outstanding favourite to take the Maillot Jaune this July, the runner-up for the past two years, Andy Schleck.
The younger Schleck has proven over the last two years that he is a stronger climber and more accomplished time-triallist than his team-mate and older brother Frank Schleck. Despite this, the two brothers from Luxembourg often refer to themselves collectively, making statements like ‘our aim is to win the Tour de France’. Cycling is of course a team sport, but only one rider can wear the Yellow Jersey into Paris at the end of the Tour. So while Frank will no doubt be a valuable asset to Andy in the high mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenées, he should suppress any personal Tour ambitions he may have, as he has shown throughout the last five years that he is not good enough to win the biggest bike race in the world.
The closest Frank Schleck has come to achieving Tour success was in 2008. He was wearing the race leader’s jersey when his Team CSC Saxo Bank team mate Carlos Sastre attacked on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez. Sastre gained enough time over all his rivals in that one attack to win the Tour de France. At the time, the Schlecks, Sastre and team manager Bjarne Riis all agreed that Sastre’s attack had been planned. Essentially, Frank Schleck had decided to sacrifice his own Tour chances for the good of the team.
However, in a recent interview on cyclingnews.com, both Schlecks admitted that Sastre’s attack had come as ‘a bit of a surprise‘ to them. Their plan was for Frank to attack on the Alpe in an attempt to gain time over the biggest threat on G.C., Cadel Evans. However if Frank Schleck had attacked before Sastre and managed to take the same amount of time out of Evans as Sastre did, Team CSC Saxo Bank would have lost the Tour, and Evans would have ultimately been crowned Tour champion.
To illustrate, Sastre finished the Alpe d’Huez stage 1′34″ ahead of Evans on G.C. and managed to defend that gap in the final time trial to end with a Tour winning lead of 58 seconds over Evans. Conversely, Frank Schleck lost 3′33″ to Evans in the final time trial, considerably more than any advantage he could have gained over Evans on the Alpe. When a rider knows that a good performance in a time trial could win them a race overall, it is sometimes no surprise for that rider to rise to the occasion and put in a wonderful performance. Schleck was actually sitting in 2nd place on G.C. going into that final time trial only 1′24″ behind Sastre and technically could still have won the Tour. But instead of rising to the occasion, he dropped three places to fifth. It seems Schleck’s lack of ability in the time trial made winning the 2008 Tour de France an impossibility regardless of how his team’s attacks on Alpe d’Huez were orchestrated.
In the same interview on cyclingnews.com, the Schleck brothers single out reigning Giro d’Italia champion Ivan Basso as their main rival for this year’s Tour. But they warn that ‘[Basso] has to improve if he is to win the Tour…there’s a difference between winning the Giro and winning the Tour de France‘. That’s a separate debate altogether, but Basso would certainly be in a much better position than Frank Schleck to have an informed opinion. Basso has won the Giro d’Italia twice (2006,2010) and finished on the podium of the Tour de France twice (2004,2005). He is one of only two riders in the current peloton, along with Alberto Contador, who have won either the Giro or the Tour and finished at least runner up in the other. Whereas, Schleck’s best Grand Tour result remains fifth place in the Tour (2008,2009) and a fifth place in last year’s Vuelta a Espana. He has only once ridden the Giro, in 2005, when he finished 42nd overall.
There is only one individual time trial on the route of the 2011 Tour de France, but at 41 kilometres in length it could still cause Frank Schleck to lose minutes to more capable time triallists. If Frank somehow finds himself in the Yellow Jersey towards the end of the Tour, it is unlikely that he will be able to defend a lead in the final time trial, unlike Andy, who is a capable enough time triallist to defend the Yellow Jersey (depending on the size of his lead). But the brothers seem unwavering in their double act, rather bizarrely going as far as to say they would like to retire from cycling at the same time, despite a five-year age difference. They have also previously stated an ambition to both stand on the Tour podium in Paris (i.e. both finish in the top three). This requires both of them to remain in the front group on all the tough mountain stages, whereas it would make more tactical sense if one was to completely sacrifice themselves for the other. In Contador’s absence, Andy Schleck may never have a better chance of winning the Tour de France. Frank Schleck will be 31 come July and finally needs to realise that any Tour victory for his family can only be achieved through his younger brother and not through himself.