We need to talk about Frank

There’s been widespread questioning of Andy Schleck’s ability to be competitive at the Tour de France 2012 after a disastrous Dauphiné which saw him abandon, succumbing to the effects of a crash in the time trial. The Dauphin, dethroned at the Dauphiné, if you will.

(I managed to type that entire passage with a straight face)

Meanwhile, Frank Schleck decided he had a point to prove and attacked on the first mountain finish of the Tour of Switzerland. A point somewhat undermined when he was beaten to the line by Rui Costa of Movistar.

Having been as unwilling a participant as an eager deserter of the Giro d’Italia, is the elder Schleck suddenly in danger of stealing his brother’s moment at the Tour?

Radishhack-Nissen Hut are standing by their man like a politician’s wife, issuing a press release  in which they state:

“The original plans will still be followed. When the condition of Andy Schleck improves in the coming days, he will do his training camps in the Pyrenees and the Alps to get that final shape for the Tour.”

Which is a brave face coming between this from Johan Bruyneel:

“Andy’s situation is not a good sign for his Tour preparation, especially if you look now at the level of his competitors. For the moment there is not much we can do. It is a difficult situation.”

And this from Andy:

“The good thing is that I have done six stages. Some people will say ‘It is only three weeks till the Tour’ but you can also say it is ‘still’ three weeks to the start in Liège. You can do a lot in three weeks. That is my strength. I’ve shown it in the last years. I was not good in the Tour de Suisse but I was in the Tour de France. I won’t stop believing in it.  I’ve worked hard for this.”

Frank is the dutiful elder brother, indeed he has always been the first to support his brother’s claim. Viewed as a dynastic power struggle, the most obvious reading may not be the most true.

Wise counsel to the Prince

There is an unconfirmed account that round about the time that Lance Armstrong was eyeing the exit door from Tailwind Sport’s Discovery Channel incarnation, there was a strong indication of interest in signing Andy Schleck, already tipped by Cyrille Guimard for greatness. The failure of this deal is said to reside in his immature insistence on bringing Frank with him.

Given the Schleck family’s long history in the sport – and that at this point Frank had already started to establish his career – where was the counsel from within the camp to consider such an offer more seriously? Or was Bjarne Riis more pragmatic in his bidding for his CSC team, prepared to give short term position to Frank in return for the riches that might follow?

It seems odd to me that Frank would not want to assert his position at CSC as  the inheritor elect to Carlos Sastre as protected Grand Tour rider. Or did he see that by keeping his brother’s talent close, he would be able to better protect his position as an effective regent and then counsel?

Dethroned without a coronation

Frank’s Amstel Gold win in 2006 meant that he wouldn’t go wanting for a contract. He dodged the Puerto stampede for the exit at the Tour that year – despite later admitting to a clear financial association with Fuentes for which he received no sanction – and won on Alpe d’Huez with one of the most preposterous victory expressions ever seen in cycling.

Then Andy turned up and came second behind Danilo di Luca at the 2007 Giro, apparently without really planning to do so. In one of the most climber friendly Tours of recent times Frank was conspicuously quiet, albeit shackled to the service of Carlos Sastre, who had been third in 2006.

In 2008 Frank was leading the Tour de France, when Sastre was sent up the road to draw out Cadel Evans on Alpe d’Huez, in a great display of the power of a good team and strong tactics. In those 14 kilometres, Frank’s opportunity to seize the crown faded and his fate as prince but never king was apparently sealed.

The next year, Andy would emerge as the only rider capable of matching Alberto Contador at the Tour, while Frank would be reduced to relying on his brother’s surges to chase the podium before succumbing to a sixth place finish.

I take the castle  

The frustration in the Schleck camp was evident after they watched the Tour win ride away from them in 2008. The genesis of the Leopard-Trek can be seen in that moment.

The assumption has always been that the project was at its origin primarily a vehicle for Andy to win the Tour, following disillusion with Riis. Yet Andy was drawing closer to Contador under the Dane’s guidance at Saxo Bank, which had a strong and established structure and reputation.

Frank was lead conspirator in the mutiny that led to Team Schleck, the ship on which a Schleck would sail to Tour victory and lasting greatness in the sport. That was assumed to mean Andy.

But was Frank who stood to benefit most. Committed to either heroic fraternal sacrifice or unexpected glory, his claim on the title would be seen as neither plotted or avaricious.

As the reserve force, he would be able to avoid the attritional effects of being in the vanguard but could sweep in and claim the glory, should the battle unfold in that manner. In the event of a collapse, he would not be to blame, but could bravely support his brother through his difficulties.

Let’s put this into a practical reading, the Tour de France 2011. This helpful chart from wikipedia plots relative positions on the overall.

Tour de France 2011 GC positions

The key point here is around stage 18, the day of Andy’s long-range attack ahead of the Galibier. It’s been described as a “bold” move, but it was also a desperate one.

Frank’s role was to follow Evans and counter if Andy was brought back. Andy being a minute back, Evans could let him swing out front and close him down late on.

Which is exactly what he did, managing the gap so that the pressure in the following stages would always be with the Schlecks. Evans didn’t need or want to bring back Andy because that opened him up to a counter from Frank.

Put it in that context and the attack becomes less about Andy winning the Tour and more about him being used as a feint to put Frank in a stronger position. I believe Evans read the move well and turned the divided intent of the Schlecks against them, in military terms  keeping the forces divided to weaken their impact.

Now ask yourself, is it Andy whose desire to win the Tour runs deepest, or is it Frank who, behind the curtain, has shaped his brother’s career for his own ends?

This entry was posted in Andy Schleck, Professional, Tour de France and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.