Andy Schleck: Will cycling’s fallen prodigy ever return to the top?
RadioShack-Leopard's Andy Schleck. AFP PHOTO / Mark Gunter
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It is hard to remember now – as we watch the 2013 version of Schleck slogging up early-season climbs with the air of a man defeated – the level of expectation across the cycling world after the numerous successes of Schleck’s early career.
Andy Schleck’s lack of descending skills on the road has been widely documented, but the speed of his descent from Alberto Contador’s main rival for overall victory in the Tour de France to that of a domestique struggling to finish a one-week race stage has been remarkable.
It is worth recapping just how significant those early successes were. In 2007 at the age of 22 he finished second to Danilo Di Luca at the Giro D’Italia.
The following year saw him finish twelfth in his first Tour de France, collecting the first of three consecutive white jerseys in the best young rider classification.
In the three years from 2009 to 2011 Schleck finished second, first (awarded after Alberto Contador’s disqualification) and second respectively in the Tour de France, while also capturing the overall victory in the prestigious one day race of Leige-Bastogne-Liege in 2009.
To have finished on the podium of a Grand Tour four times by the time he reached the age of 26 was an achievement which marked him out as a potential great to stand on an all-time podium alongside Merckx, Coppi, Hinault et al – a true once-in-a-generation rider.
Regrettably, as in the case of so many athletes across the sporting spectrum who have shown such talent and potential in the early part of their careers, one can only help but wonder if the successes Schleck showed during this time were not the first rays in the dawn of a brilliant career, but an early and transient high-point, a precursor to a long late-career slide into obscurity.
In other words, the beginning of that familiar sporting narrative of the exceptionally gifted young athlete unable to fulfil the expected destiny of an all-time great.
It is with regret that some fans of English football recall the thought they had after Michael Owen’s career defining World Cup goal against Argentina in 1998 – that thought being something like:
“If he’s this good now, just imagine him in five years time.”
But of course, he was never quite that good again. Sadly, a glorious spring provokes a certain yearning for – and expectation of – a glorious summer.
And when such a summer does not arrive, it leaves us feeling unsatisfied, almost cheated out of something that we expected to be rightfully ours.
And so it is with our young sporting heroes. The spring alone is never enough; we always want the summer.
Yet many of us, still, are hoping to see the full blossoming of Andy Schleck’s talent – the elusive summer of this former prodigy’s career (he is, after all, only 27 years old and should be coming into his peak as a professional cyclist).
Last weekend’s Criterium International in Corsica provided some cause for optimism. Firstly, and importantly, Schleck finished the race without disgrace.
The first stage comfortably ensconced in the peloton; the second, a 7 km time-trial, 45 seconds in arrears to the winner Richie Porte.
Nothing special, certainly – but at the same time, steady, respectable, not disastrous.
Then, on the second day, an attack. Not an attack with any real menace, nothing to compare with those early, glorious years – only a simple move at kilometre 105 to join a breakaway formed by the Team Europcar trio of Thomas Voekler, Cyril Gautier and Kevin Reza.
Soon after, on the Col de Sainte Lucie De Tallano, Schleck was dropped again.
He ultimately finished almost 22 minutes down on the eventual stage winner (and winner of the overall classification), Team Sky’s Chris Froome.
It did, however, mark a comeback of sorts. As Schleck himself said post-race of his early season travails and of the stage itself, “I was never dead, just maybe asleep – but it was a nice day today.”
Never dead, but asleep. For those sports fans attracted to the romantic notion of ‘the comeback’, Schleck’s words provoke within us a certain desire to see him rise again.
To complete the journey from the top, to the bottom, to the top again. The prodigy returns – but this time older, and wiser, and tougher. This is his ambition, and his supporters’ dream.
But truly, can Schleck ever return to being a great cyclist? That is the question that echoes in the minds of team-mates, fans and rivals alike.
So let us, for a moment, reconsider stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France – the highest finish in the great race’s history.
A tour in which Schleck had, until that point, been relatively underwhelming. And then, 60km from the finish, he attacked – and it was to become one of the defining attacks of the modern era, an audacious move which prompted the great Eddie Merckx to emerge from the sunroof of the race director’s car to scream his support.
A move which nobody had seen coming, which nobody had predicted, and which resulted in a stage win and a time gap of over two mintutes to his nearest rivals.
Such an attack still lingers in the memory, and teases out the desire in cycling fans of a romantic persuasion to see a similar act repeated, to see Schleck once again at the ‘Tete de la course’, pursued but not caught; a victory not gained by careful calculation of wattage, but from God-given talent and a natural instinct for bike-racing.
Perhaps it is too much to expect such a victory from Schleck again; we should simply accept the fact that as an athlete he peaked early and his best days are already in the past.
And yet, with time still on his side, the faint hope remains of that rare progression in the career of a prodigal athlete: the transition from a promising spring to that of memorable summer.