Andy Schleck still looks like he is fresh out of college. He is two years younger than his perennial rival, Alberto Contador, and five years the junior of Alejandro Valverde. Yet, when the 2017 Tour goes over the Col du Galibier, scene of his great exploit, before descending to Serre-Chevalier, Schleck will not be fighting his old sparring partners. Time is still on his side, but his busted knee denies any comeback. Besides, life has moved on: he’ll be enjoying a deferred wedding celebration in Mallorca instead.
Schleck bowed out of cycling at the age of 29 in October 2014, confirming himself as the generation’s Peter Pan protagonist: the boy who never grew into a bona fide Tour champion. His farewell to the sport had been brewing after a bad knee injury and mediocre results, but it was still a shock for fans and Schleck himself.
“Suddenly, you are retired. And it’s all good at first, you tell yourself now you have time, you can go fishing, you can do whatever you want. But it gets boring very fast if you don’t have a challenge – at least for me – every day,” he says. “I took three months off everything and tried to find myself. To find out who I really am again.”
The idea of opening a bike shop hit him during this period. Not one to do things by halves, the impulsive Luxembourger bought a barn in the Luxembourg town of Itzig and poured his energies into making Andy Schleck Cycles a success. He “needed to learn everything new again”, from sending letters and paying bills through to indexing every item of inventory. A professional cyclist from the age of 19, Schleck was institutionalised.
“That transition [to normal life] was very difficult. When you are young, you don’t always realise what you are doing – the whole time training, pleasing sponsors, pleasing people. It becomes a daily habit.”
Having turned pro in 2005 with CSC, Schleck shot to prominence virtually overnight. As a 21-year-old, he finished second in the 2007 Giro d’Italia, 1’55” behind winner Danilo Di Luca. It was a quantum leap from his previous best result, eighth at the Tour of Romandy. “I went into the Giro as a young guy who had talent and came out as a future Tour de France winner. Of course I surprised myself,” he says.
Born and bred in the little town of Mondorf-les-Bains, Andy Schleck was soon being stopped for autographs and catapulted into the world of celebrity, hobnobbing with the likes of Ben Stiller. “When you’re young, you enjoy the fame. You enjoy being renowned for your work, the results,” he says. “I believe in my heart, I never changed. But every single step you do in life, you get wiser. When I see how I look at life today and how I looked at it ten years ago, it’s still like two completely different people.”
In 2008, he finished twelfth and best young rider at the Tour while helping CSC team-mate Carlos Sastre to victory. The following year, Schleck junior proved he was the Tour’s heir apparent. He finished second overall, sealed by a breakaway with winner Alberto Contador and brother Frank, who took the stage, to Le Grand Bornand. It was the power of two in evidence.
Andy believes sharing teams and rooms with Frank, five years his elder, throughout his whole career helped to keep them both normal. “At night in the Tour, we didn’t talk about the next stage in our room. We talked about what we would do when we went home, if we’d go fishing together or for holidays.
“We’re quite different in character. I’ll say I’m gonna do it, and I go out and fight. I say ‘fuck, I’ll go and if I lose, I lose, and it’s been a lesson for me. And if it works, I’m happy.’ And Frank is really the opposite, analysing before and not taking too many risks.”
The 2010 Tour showed that: Andy attacked the contenders to win a stage in Morzine and held the yellow jersey for six days. A dropped chain after attacking on the Port de Balès lost him the lead and proved to be his downfall. After a duel with Contador in the mist on the Tourmalet and riding the time-trial of his life, he lost by just 39 seconds – the exact amount of time relinquished in “Chaingate”.
Moving to Leopard-Trek in 2011, a Luxembourg-backed project based around the Schleck brothers, he took his third and final Tour de France stage win. It proved to be the most memorable performance of his career. A week beforehand, during general classification stalemate, Schleck devised a plan for a 60km breakaway during stage 18 of the 2011 Tour up and over the Col d’Izoard, along the Maurienne valley and to the top of the Galibier. It seemed to fly in the face of wisdom and the increased economy of modern Grand Tour racing. His fellow Leopard-Trek riders took some convincing.
“The first guy whose opinion I wanted was my bodyguard, Stuart O’Grady. He said ‘Andy, if you feel like it, you’ve got to try this.’ Then even in the meeting the morning before, the sports director didn’t really agree with it. No one really agreed with me doing this.” His team-mate Maxime Monfort told me in 2011 that his thoughts were ‘good luck, it’s not PlayStation cycling.’
“But in the end, I said ‘guys, this is my plan and I want you to follow it.’ Because we also sent Maxime and Joost [Posthuma] in the breakaway. And it worked.” Schleck’s buccaneering ride, putting over two minutes into the challengers, belonged to a bygone era.
On the morning of our chat, Schleck was a guest at an event with local school children where a brief video of his famous Galibier ride was played. “Honestly, I look at it without any emotion,” he says. “But when I see the kids watch it and hear the questions coming afterwards, that’s something that makes me feel great again.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Schleck doesn’t consider himself a pure climber. “Because I was still quite heavy [around 68kg] for a guy winning in the mountains. Also, I won Liège-Bastogne-Liège [in 2009], so I had a little bit of punch as well.”
Schleck won the yellow jersey the next day on Alpe d’Huez as Thomas Voeckler’s challenge finally wilted, but he adds: “That’s not even in my memory. Me and my now-wife Jil got together the day before I left for that Tour. Suddenly, I was in love.” Schleck has always known that cycling was just a chapter of his life, not the be all and end all.
A late Tour time-trial proved his undoing again. “I lost to Cadel but I still did a damn good time-trial that day. He was just extraordinarily strong,” he points out. At the age of 26, it was a third Tour podium place for Andy Schleck, with brother Frank alongside him in third.
His Grand Tour near misses were framed favourably by his youth: surely there’d be other Tours and improvements to come. As Schleck’s German team-mate Jens Voigt wrote in his autobiography, Shut Up, Legs!: “It seemed like it was just a matter of time until Andy would win the race … he seemed to possess the talent to become one of the great Tour de France riders of all time.”
Then it appeared to burn out. Schleck broke his hip at the 2012 Critérium du Dauphiné and neither his form nor health ever fully recovered. He went from sowing mayhem in the mountains to the middle of the pack.
Technically, Andy Schleck is a Tour winner though. Almost two years after the event, in May 2012, Schleck was officially recognised as the 2010 Tour winner following an earlier CAS ruling over Alberto Contador’s positive test for clenbuterol. “For a long time, I didn’t know how to feel about this. But I feel like the winner,” he says. “Today, if the questions come up, I’m getting a little bit angry because, during my career, I was riding when more and more things came to light. Contador was not playing with fair cards that Tour. That’s clear.
“In 2007, I finished second to Danilo Di Luca in the Giro. He wrote in his book what he was using during that race. So that’s my victory as well, but nobody talks about it. I feel a little bit betrayed in a lot of races: I was second behind [Davide] Rebellin in the 2009 Flèche Wallonne. That would have been my victory because he was positive that year.
“A lot of these guys, Bernard Kohl, Tyler Hamilton, Stefan Schumacher… you are not surprised because somehow you know it. But you do the sport you love and you don’t think about it at the time when you’re fighting on a climb, not even for a second.
“I really believe that my fans always had trust in me that I was riding clean, and that I was a real fair play person, and I believe that’s what I benefit from today: that I still get invites to do events and am still around and in the press a lot. Because who talks about Di Luca today? No one, just the scandalists.
“I like to share my stories and they still inspire people. They like that I’m actually authentic. When you’re doing an event or with people, you feel if someone is fake or being real. And I have fun being real.
“One day, I’m going to write a book. There’s so many out there from cyclists that are all about cheating and dark days. Millar, Hamilton, Dekker, all these guys explaining they were putting the needle in the left side of the arm or the right side. Who cares about that? But I’ve got a lot more to tell, it should be a book telling the great stories, the great fun, the greatness of the sport.”
Schleck was himself so close to greatness. If anything, there was a certain misfortune in showing such prodigious ability at the very start of his career. He grew up in the public eye with these great expectations. He was a fallible counterpoint to more complete rivals like Contador and Evans – occasionally ponderous on descents, average against the clock and sometimes guileless when on the cusp of victory. But if this puppy dog had been a regular cold-blooded killer, he wouldn’t have been so popular.
“Maybe mentally, I was not strong enough,” Schleck says, unprompted, at the end of our conversation. “Maybe I would have won more Tours de France or more races if I was more of an animal in character. More tough. But then again, would I be happier today if I’d won four or five more Tour de France stages or one more Tour? I don’t think so.”
This article was originally published in Rouleur 17.4