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‘As a professional you always live from one goal to another. The sad thing is you don’t have time to enjoy it’

Mark Bailey
8 Dec 2017

Andy Schleck talks candidly about winning and losing the Tour, his missing Giro title and why he never watched his brother race on TV

It is Saturday evening in a bustling hotel bar in Stratford, east London, and Andy Schleck is frowning at his cup of coffee. ‘I should have a beer instead of a coffee,’ declares the Luxembourgish cyclist, nodding at the well lubricated football fans and wedding guests nearby.

With his elfin smile and tousled hair, it’s hard to believe Schleck – the official winner of the 2010 Tour de France following Alberto Contador’s backdated ban for doping, and younger brother of fellow pro Fränk – retired from cycling with a knee injury three years ago, aged just 29.

Even he sometimes forgets he can now embrace the giddy freedom of life outside the peloton, which is how he ended up with a glum Americano instead of a frothy tankard of British ale.

Retirement provides bewildering new challenges for professional cyclists. ‘When you’re a pro athlete you live in the extremes so when you are out there you fight, you race and you are always full gas,’ says Schleck, 32.

‘But I never even paid my bills myself. I had someone pay them for me. You have a cook who cooks for you. So when you stop you have to learn all these things.

‘I didn’t know how to write a letter. I said, “Where do I put the address?” I hadn’t done it for 12 years. How do you pay a bill? My grandma pays bills online. I didn’t know how to do that.’

The shock of ending such a major chapter of his life was devastating. ‘I was always a guy with my feet on the ground and I always knew I would have to stop one day, but it was very tough.

‘I had a few months when I was very down. I had time to go fishing and walk my dog. But after a week of that you have to find a purpose in life.

‘After two or three months of being down, I thought, “What am I going to do?” I realised I still had a role in cycling.

‘I opened a bike shop. I started a bike school for kids. I became president of the Tour of Luxembourg. I go to events and I like to share my story.

‘As a professional you always live from one goal to another. The sad thing is you don’t have time to enjoy it.’

Schleck has since enjoyed a whirlwind of new life experiences. Last year he took former US Secretary of State John Kerry on a 40km bike ride.

The pair sometimes chat about bikes on the phone. He has gone cycling in Thailand. He married his partner Jil in February, emerging from the town hall beneath a tunnel of bike wheels, and the couple welcomed their second child in June.

He spends hours working in his bike shop in Itzig, just outside Luxembourg City. ‘I do some of the sales myself – I love it.’

Today he’s visiting London in his role as an ambassador for the TP ICAP L’Etape London sportive. At the event he handed out medals and snacks to riders and cycled some of the course himself – although he admits his fitness has slipped.

‘A few weeks ago I was in California riding up a hill with Levi Leipheimer and I just said, “Jesus Christ, this is big.” It was just for fun but I was suffering.’

Brothers in arms

Schleck was born into a Luxembourgish cycling dynasty on 10th June 1985. His father Johny competed at the Tour de France and his grandfather Gustav raced in the 1930s.

He is the youngest of three siblings: his oldest brother Steve became a politician, while he and Fränk (five years his senior) followed their father into cycling.

From childhood escapades to Tour de France stardom, the brothers had one rule: ‘We would race in training but never drop each other. So even if one was stronger, you still helped the other.’

The Schlecks enjoyed a unique childhood. ‘I remember in the summer holidays going to the Tour de France because my dad was still working in cycling after his career.

‘Bernard Hinault is a good friend of my dad’s and I only realised later that it is not really normal to know these people. But really I grew up in a cycling culture.

‘I love it when my dad tells me stories about how they stopped in cafes and took wine or had a cigarette on the bike.’

Schleck followed his older brother Fränk to Team CSC, signing as a stagiare in 2004. ‘I earned 25,000 euros a year, which was fantastic at the age of 18. I said, “If I can do this, with this salary, for 10 years I will be more than happy.”’

He speaks with touching honesty about the joy and anxiety of racing with his brother Fränk, who won two Tour de France stages, in 2006 and 2009, as well as the 2009 Tour de Luxembourg and the 2010 Tour de Suisse.

‘I never cried when I won a race but I cried when he won a race. I never cried when I crashed but I cried when he crashed. I felt it. This is a dangerous sport.

‘The few races we didn’t do together I couldn’t watch the TV because I was too scared. I know how dangerous it can be and I have lost friends on the road.

‘With your brother in the peloton, you always think, “Where is he?”’

The youngest Schleck was an instant success, finishing second and winning the young rider classification at the 2007 Giro d’Italia in his first Grand Tour. But the memory of that race still gnaws away at him. The winner, the Italian Danilo Di Luca, has since confessed to doping in his autobiography.

‘I consider myself more as a Giro winner with Di Luca beating me,’ Schleck says. ‘He writes now in his book what he was doing during every stage, in the evening and at night
to be fit again the next day. I feel really cheated on the terrain there.’

Schleck is haunted by other early-career regrets. He finished 12th and won the young rider jersey in his first Tour de France, in 2008, as a member of Carlos Sastre’s triumphant
CSC-Saxo Bank team.

‘Carlos won the race and I was very happy to stand on the podium in Paris but I was sad because I felt I could have won that Tour. I lost nine minutes in the stage
at the Hautacam.

‘But it was a lesson I had to learn. That is what happens in the Tour if you lose concentration.’

The brutal intensity of the race shocked him. ‘The first Tour was about suffering, not only because of the physical stress but also the mental stress. The profile of the Giro might be as hard but you ride differently.

‘In the Giro we had stages at 35kmh when it was clear a sprinter would win. On one stage we stopped in a tunnel because it was raining.

‘We had one stage when the sports director Matt White of Discovery stopped at a gas station and bought a box of ice creams for the peloton. But in the Tour from kilometre zero you are racing.’

Somewhat surprisingly, Schleck cherishes his victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2009 more than any other race – including his later Tour win.

‘Winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège is what I still consider as the biggest achievement in my career. I was incredibly strong that year. It sounds very arrogant, no? But the way I won it,
it was like I could have written it down on paper.

‘I said to my brother, “Fränk, I don’t think anyone can beat me tomorrow.” That was the moment I had the most self-confidence in my career.’

Tour loser – then winner

Schleck finished second to Alberto Contador in the Tour de France in both 2009 and 2010, claiming the young rider’s jersey in both editions.

But in 2012 he was awarded the 2010 yellow jersey after the Spaniard was retrospectively sanctioned for testing positive for clenbuterol – a violation he said was caused by consuming contaminated meat.

Schleck is still angry about the consequences. ‘For me, leaving Contador out of the picture, there has been a decision made that Contador gets disqualified.

‘I believe there are enough educated people who take that decision. It is not out of the blue that someone takes that decision.

‘So in my eyes he did something wrong. Was it doping? Was it a grey line? I don’t know. It’s not up to me to decide that. But the whole system is wrong. I didn’t get a cent of prize money from that Tour.

‘I had a bonus system in my contract for winning a Tour and getting a big prize, but I didn’t get it because I was on a different team when I was given the win.

‘I signed my contract with Leopard Trek [in 2011] as the rider who finished second in the Tour de France, not as the Tour de France winner. So economics-wise I feel
very cheated.’

Contador’s doping violation wasn’t the only controversy at the 2010 Tour. While leading the race on Stage 15, Schleck dropped his chain on Port de Balès and Contador and two other riders appeared to break the unwritten rules of the peloton by attacking. Schleck lost 39 seconds that day – the exact time by which Contador eventually (and temporarily) won the Tour.

Schleck smiles playfully when reminded of ‘Chain-gate’. ‘I believe that Alberto was very, very lucky that he fell on a person like me. I remember the day after, people were just spitting at him and booing and he was crying on the bike.

‘After the stage I took the decision myself, without anyone telling me, to go to the TV and say, “Come on, it’s OK.”’

He insists he would never have behaved in the same way as the Spaniard. ‘You know the rider I was. I would not have done that. But he is different. It was not cheating. He took advantage of a mechanical issue with me.

‘This year in the Giro the pink jersey [Tom Dumoulin] went to the toilet and they didn’t wait for him. I would have waited for him. I would have managed to calm the peloton down.

‘This year Movistar attacked when Sky fell and people pointed at it, but Sky did the same before [at the 2012 Vuelta] so it was almost kind of a payback. But Contador didn’t need to give me payback.

‘I was very strong that year and he was panicking and trying to get seconds out of it. But it’s still pretty cool that [without Chain-gate] I would have won by one second. Or half a second…’

Schleck and Contador remain surprisingly good friends. ‘You know I really like Alberto. I text him. I will meet him next month and I will go for dinner with him. It’s a separate thing to what happened when we were racing.’

At the 2011 Tour de France Schleck again finished second, behind Cadel Evans, but his frustration was diluted by his pride at sharing the podium with his brother Fränk, who came third.

‘Being with Fränk on the podium in Paris is a feeling that is hard to describe. Joy and love are things that grow when you share them. So to share that experience with your brother is really cool.’

Distance yields perspective and Schleck says he couldn’t have given any more. ‘People say I lost it on the last time-trial. But I lost it on the descent of Gap in the rain when Cadel took one minute out of me.

‘But when Wouter [Weylandt] died in the Giro [on 9th May 2011], it gave me a kick and I couldn’t descend as fast as I could before. But I am happy today. I have two kids so I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t be any more happy if I had another Tour win.’

A cycling legacy

Given that Schleck was forced to retire prematurely, there will always be a lingering sense of what might have been. Would he have enjoyed racing today?

‘I think the level is a lot higher than it used to be,’ he says. ‘I don’t know if I would even finish on the podium. If I say that to people, they say, “Yeah, of course you would,” because my watts were the same as they do today.

‘In my time there was no room for mistakes but now there is really no room for mistakes. But maybe racing is losing a little bit of character.

‘I mentioned about my dad stopping for cigarettes and wine. That was one extreme. But it is really rare to see surprises today – a breakaway from far away who makes it to the finish.

‘A week before the end of the Tour the podium is already written down so we lose a little bit of fun.’

Although still upset about the emotional and economic impact of competing against doping offenders, Schleck says he is proud of the personal legacy he has etched into the chronicles of cycling history.

He is honoured to be a Tour (and, in his mind, Giro) champion. He is grateful to have shared his career with his brother. And he is humbled to know that his reputation among his peers remains strong.

‘Maybe I am wrong but there is no rider who talks badly about me. I treated everyone right, always. It didn’t make a difference if it was Lance Armstrong or a domestique.

‘That gives me the credit today that I have everybody’s number. I can call Chris Froome now. I will meet with Philippe Gilbert in two weeks in Belgium and we will go hunting together.

‘It may be a naive way I look at things. I trust a lot of people. I like a lot of people. Alberto, for example, is really a lot more closed. He has a close group.

‘But the world is still open for me. I went to the Tour of Luxembourg and talked to everyone in the peloton and that is good.’

As we say farewell and walk out of the hotel bar, Schleck – still troubled by that coffee order – tells me he is going to grab a jumper and then go for a quiet beer in a London pub before dinner. Retirement isn’t easy, but he’s learning.

Andy Schleck is an ambassador for the TP ICAP L’Etape London, part of the UK L’Etape Series by Le Tour de France. Join the 2018 Dragon Ride L’Etape Wales at www.letapeuk.co.uk/wales

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