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Bird on the Wire

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Photographs: Offside-LeEquipe

“When you fly high, you fall deep.” Andy Schleck
Watching Andy Schleck’s retirement press conference on Thursday morning was surprisingly moving. When you see someone manfully battling to hold back tears for thirty minutes, it cuts through all the crap about results, numbers and DNFs to the heart of a human story. This is a 29-year-old, who should be in his physical prime, announcing his retirement from a sport he’s given his life to, after three torrid years searching in vain for his old form.
As Schleck said at his press conference, surprisingly poetically for a professional sportsman, when you fly high, you fall down very deep. His was a most public descent: imagine how difficult it is mentally, going from beating the world to hardly being able to get round a race, and being asked different variations of that same stinging question a thousand times over the last three years: ‘Why are you nowhere near as good as you used to be?’ Don’t you think he’ll have asked himself that same thing over and over in many sessions of soul-searching?
Professional cyclists shouldn’t be robots, and he’s made a few mistakes in his career: dodgy descending; kicked out of the Vuelta for boozing; that chain-dropping incident. It became very easy to criticise Andy Schleck, but that’s how it works, isn’t it? Build up stars, then knock ‘em down.
His fragility and fallibility have always been appealing, but with his career-ending knee injury, they ended up being his undoing too. While some riders radiate power and manliness – Cancellara and Boonen, for instance – Andy Schleck has always been a little bird: impossibly thin, naïve, flawed, in need of protection, falling out of the metaphorical nest at times.
But when he flew? His battle with Alberto Contador on the misty Tourmalet in 2010 and that Galibier coup the following year will live long in the memory. What’s more, he was an out-and-out climber, such a rare commodity in a modern cycling world that increasingly demands versatile Grand Tour contenders who can do the lot (indeed, much work was down on Schleck’s time-trialling position, to no avail).
You can say a lot of things about Schleck’s recent performances and why his results dried up so abruptly, but it was impossible to not like him. More than just Frank’s younger sibling, Andy was like the little brother of the cycling pack. His unchanging good nature and boyish looks drew in fans, team-mates, even journalists. To his credit, through all his time in the public eye and the last three years of problems, he remained the same mischievous lad from Luxembourg. Perhaps it helped that, in his heyday, he still seemed the underdog, doomed to be the runner-up.
In Schleck’s story, there are parallels to another mercurial Luxembourg climber, Charly Gaul, who blew hot and cold on the bike too. Here’s hoping Schleck won’t retreat into hermitude and depression in later life like his late, great countryman. Surely he has too much popularity and charisma for that; perhaps a punditry role beckons.
Ultimately, when a rider retires, it’s never down to the results that they have gained – though Schleck’s Tour de France and Liège-Bastogne-Liège victories have more than enough currency. It’s the impression left on people that counts and decides how he’ll be remembered. Andy Schleck will be recalled more fondly than a lot of far greater champions.
Hopefully this is the end of his three-year saga. Besides, it’s easy to forget the immense strength this little bird has. It was heartening to see that throughout the emotional press conference, while his voice and lip sometimes trembled, he was still smiling through it all. 

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