Returning from major setbacks is one of the hardest tasks for a star cyclist. Right now, the rider having a rough road back, following a serious injury last June, is Andy Schleck. And because he has quit four of the five races he’s started this year, the 27-year-old from Luxembourg has not been shown much sympathy. In fact, Schleck has become a figure of ridicule to those people, especially anonymous voices on social media, who seem to enjoy putting down others rather than lifting them up.
The fragile state of Schleck’s mental health has become an especially hot topic since a French politician last week wrote on Facebook that he’d seen the cyclist in an inebriated state at a hotel in Munich, Germany, a few hours after he’d quit the Tirreno-Adriatico race. Schleck didn’t deny that allegation in an interview with Luxembourg television this week. After saying it was ridiculous, his words were translated as “I forgot pretty fast about it [the Munich story], and I don’t want to comment on it anymore.”
What he wanted to talk about was getting in shape for next month’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the classic he won four years ago in his best-ever one-day performance, and then finding top form for this year’s Tour de France. With the goal of a fourth Tour podium in mind, Schleck is starting this weekend’s two-day, three-stage Critérium International, which takes place on the French island of Corsica—where this year’s Tour will hold its first three stages. If he quits again, the naysayers will simply step up their barrage of put-downs.
Schleck isn’t the first pro cyclist to face brickbats during a difficult comeback. Those of us who were around clearly remember the travails of Greg LeMond in the late-1980s, when nothing seemed to go right for the American in the three years after his first Tour victory. Starting the 1987 season as the defending Tour champion, LeMond crashed at Tirreno-Adriatico in March, breaking a wrist. He returned to his then home near Sacramento, California, and just as he was healing he went on the April 21 hunting trip that ended in him suffering near-fatal shotgun wounds.
The European cycling media weren’t entirely sympathetic. Many reporters questioned why a Tour champ would go turkey hunting when he should be training conscientiously before his return to racing. And that was just the start of the negative comments, even though LeMond has been within 20 minutes of bleeding to death before he received emergency surgery. He lost most of his muscle mass during weeks of convalescence, but he managed to return to racing that year, finishing 44th at Ireland’s Nissan Classic, before follow-up surgery ended his season.
After signing with a new team, PDM, in 1988, LeMond managed to finish Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Flanders, but then he abandoned three stage races in quick succession: the Tour of the Basques Country, Four Days of Dunkirk and Giro d’Italia. He’d developed tendinitis and needed another operation, this time for an infected shin. That forced him to miss the Tour for a second year, and PDM gave up on its ailing star.
In 1989, LeMond was forced to take a big salary cut on signing with the low-budget ADR squad. By now, critics were saying that LeMond would never come back, though he did show some semblance of good form in March with sixth place at Tirreno and fourth at the Critérium International. But he failed completely at May’s Tour de Trump (the predecessor of the East Coast’s Tour DuPont), when he was getting dropped whenever the gradient steepened.
Things only got worse at the following Giro d’Italia. Even the fans were remarking that LeMond looked fat and out of shape. Again, he couldn’t follow the climbers he’d once been able to leave behind in the high mountains. His lowest point came on the snow-lined climb of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo, where LeMond struggled to the line almost 20 minutes behind the leaders. The critics said that he would never come back, much as they have written off Schleck today.
Two years had passed since LeMond was shot, and after working so hard to return to the top he was on the point of giving up completely on pro cycling. He later philosophized that the more serious the original injury the longer the body needed to make a complete recovery. “No matter how dedicated you are, how seriously you train,” he said, “you need a certain period of time to do that.” That’s something that Schleck (and the critics today) need to bear in mind.
Schleck’s crash, when a gust of wind blew him off his bike in the time trail at last June’s Critérium du Dauphiné, seemed benign at the time. He even continued in the race for a couple of days before back pain forced him to quit. He was later diagnosed with a fractured sacrum that, added to an earlier knee injury, kept him out of racing until last October. He didn’t finish that race, the Tour of Beijing, and he was again off the back at January’s Tour Down Under.
His best showing this year came at the weeklong Tirreno-Adriatico, where he completed five stages prior to pulling out on the last road stage, utterly exhausted, on a day of cold, wet weather. Rain is again in the forecast this Sunday for the Critérium International’s final stage, which finishes on the no-doubt-chilly summit of the 3,140-foot-high Col de l’Ospedale. At his best, Schleck would be in line to contest such a stage win against riders he’ll likely be competing against at the Tour this coming July: Cadel Evans, Chris Froome and Andrew Talansky.
But given the circumstances Schleck will be happy just to finish the race in good shape. That was the goal for LeMond in that difficult Giro 24 years ago. After the American’s specific problem on the Tre Cime stage finish was diagnosed as anemia, he was given an iron shot that helped him begin a turnaround that his critics didn’t see coming. LeMond finished that Giro in 39th overall, but more significantly took second in the closing time trial. A month later he discovered his best form at the Tour and ended up winning it by eight seconds over Laurent Fignon.
There’s nothing Andy Schleck would enjoy more than finishing on the podium of the 2013 Tour—and silencing all those critics!
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