It was Andy’s brother Frank Schleck, winding his way up that hairpin stacked colossus of Alpe d’Huez at the 2006 Tour de France when I first heard about Andy. ‘If you think this guy is good, you should see his brother’, said the commentator, or something to that affect. Initially dismissed as something you often hear, it was proven true when he made his Grand Tour debut at the next years Giro and finished second. A rare talent had been unearthed and big things were projected, and yet here we are, just seven years on, and the now 29 year old, injured and washed up younger Schleck, has retired.
Andy Schleck made the announcement yesterday saying that cartilage damage in his right knee, suffered from a crash in England during a stage of this years Tour de France, was irreparable.
“The ligaments were fine, they healed,” said Schleck, “but I have almost no cartilage left under my kneecap.” His contract with Trek Factory Racing was expiring at the end of the year, unlikely to be renewed, and with this latest injury now hanging over him, his chances of finding a new team growing slimmer by the day.
Back in 2008 though, when he made his Tour de France debut and finished 12th followed by a second place to Alberto Contador the following year, still aged just 23, he was one of the hottest properties in the sport. Like Jan Ullrich before him who burst into the sport with such promise, he soon became the nearly man.
At the 2009 Tour he was beaten into second place by Alberto Contador and again in 2010, or so it seemed. In an incredible three week duel he lost the Tour by a mere 39 seconds, the exact number of seconds he lost to Contador on stage 15 when his chain dropped on the way up the Port de Bales and the Spaniard attacked, but this time, in the long run, fate was with him. Contador, tested positive at the Tours second rest day in what became the beefgate scandal and following a lengthy trial was stripped of his title with Schleck inheriting the win.
“It’s nice to accept this jersey, but for me it doesn’t change anything – it’s not like a win,” he said at the time. “It’s not the same sensation as climbing on the podium.”
And yet many still felt his chance to do so would come. In 2011 with Contador off form and still waiting to hear the vircit of his trial, Schleck seemed nailed on to win, but once again he would play second fiddle. Leading into the final time-trial of the Tour by 53 seconds over his brother Frank and 57 seconds to Cadel Evans he coughed up 2 minutes 31 seconds to the Australian who pulled on Yellow and wore it into Paris the following day. It was like a slightly less dramatic (but only slightly) version of LeMond and Fignon all over again. Ironic too in that Cyrille Guimard, the man who first signed Schleck as a junior, had compared him to Fignon.
But that 2011 Tour also brought with it the finest ride of Schleck’s career and the one for which he will be most remembered. Often criticised for not being aggressive enough; for not attacking at the risk of dropping his brother when he so badly wanted them both on the top two steps of that podium, he finally fired back on stage 18 going on one of the finest solo exploits in recent tour memory to win at the top of the famous Col du Galibier. He attacked early on the Col d’Izoard and rode alone for 60 kilometres leading on the Galibier with, at one stage, a four minute lead. Evans went on pursuit to save his Tour and while the Yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler, who had been battling viciously though the mountains to retain his lead, kept it by a handful of seconds, the writing was on the wall. Schleck would eventually pull on yellow only to lose it a few days later.
Following that epic stage, and even in spite of eventually losing the Tour to Evans, it was believed that Schleck had truly discovered his full potential and in knowing it’s high limits from the start in 2012 he would ensure that the time-trial would not become a factor. Instead however, that memorable win would prove to be his last at the Tour, and he was never the same rider again. He started to get injured more and soon found himself off the pace and rapidly losing confidence, dropping early on the kind of climbs he used to dominate.
The moment was captured at its worst with Schleck crashing out of this years Tour early. Another crash, another injury, another Tour lost. Would he ever recover to come back to the rider he was and we knew he could be? At 29 you felt time was still on his side, though in his old rival Contador and new contenders in Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome, he appeared to have been left behind. One could hope he’d find his way back, but yesterday Schleck confirmed that time was not on his side, that he was done.
A three time winner of the young rider white jersey competition at the Tour de France, it’s sad to see him now retiring young, but perhaps in doing so we’ll always remember him as being young, wearing that white jersey, soaring high on mountains like the Tourmalet in 2010 and Galibier in 2011; a young man of potential.