Schleck ready to climb back into Tour de France contention
More racing … Andy Schleck's best form is to come. Photo: AFP
BEFORE Sunday night, the last time Andy Schleck raced a bike hardly reflected his status as a former Tour de France champion. That was in October, when, placed last overall in the Tour of Beijing, he pulled out of the race.
Schleck's decision to quit, early in the fifth stage, after a week when he fell down the rankings daily could have fuelled more doubts about his ability to win the Tour under his own steam rather than inherit the title, as he did in 2010 when Spaniard Alberto Contador was banned and stripped of the win for doping.
Schleck, 27, who has twice placed second in the Tour - including in 2011 to Australia's Cadel Evans - has worn the label of a ''Tour winner in waiting'' since his 2008 debut, when he won the white best-young-rider's jersey and placed 12th overall after his second in the 2007 Giro d'Italia. Schleck is a terrific climber whose potential was never better shown than in the 2011 Tour stage to the mountain top finish on the Col du Galibier.
The Luxembourger threw everything into a brave solo attack on Evans who, in turn, was forced to unleash his own chase to keep his Tour-winning hopes alive. Schleck didn't get the time he needed to stymie Evans properly, but he still won the stage and the respect of thousands who watched.
However, there have still been questions about his inner passion to win the Tour. Last February he said his career did not hinge on winning the Tour. But now, after his spell out due to a fractured coccyx from his crash at the Criterium du Dauphine in June, hopes are that may be different.
Schleck's comments upon abandoning the Tour of Beijing - his first race in five months - may have indicated his best was some way off. ''I am happy I am here. I am glad to be back in the peloton. It was important to race. I needed to get back to racing. Just being here was good for me,'' he said. But behind those words was a steely conviction.
Schleck returned to Luxembourg and trained and trained … with both eyes firmly focused on ''season 2013'' and the Tour's June 29 start.
In readiness for his return to the top, Schleck, whose 2013 comeback season kicked off at the 51km People's Choice Classic criterium in Adelaide on Sunday night, has drawn up a new plan - to race more, rather than less, before the Tour.
''When we discussed my racing schedule, I told them I want to do as many races as possible,'' said Schleck, who will also race in the Tour Down Under that starts on Tuesday and finishes on Sunday.
''I will have 60 race days in my legs before the start of the Tour de France. I have to do that because I missed many race days last year. In today's pro cycling, if you make small mistakes, you pay for it.''
Schleck also says he is not yet fully over his injury, and that the extra kilometres of racing ware designed to strengthen him physically and build self-confidence. ''When I am home, I am still receiving treatment. I can ride pain-free, touch wood. I have to forget what has happened,'' he said.
''My body is OK, but I need to regain my confidence. That's what I lost when I was at home for six months doing nothing. I need to be back at the front of the race again.''
That does not guarantee Schleck will be ''at the front'' in the Tour Down Under even with the route being the hilliest of its 15 editions.
Should he feel up to it, the aptly named Corkscrew climb near the finish of stage two on Wednesday and the Willunga Hill finish on stage five on Saturday would provide prime opportunities to test where he is at.