Looking to get back on top ... 2010 Tour de France winner Andy Schleck, competing in the Tour Down Under for the first time.
THE sight of Andy Schleck riding at the front of the peloton in stage two of the Tour Down Under this week after a long absence through injury last year impressed no one more than his former teammate Australian Stuart O'Grady.
Schleck, the 2010 Tour de France champion who is racing in the Australian event for the first time, was not just putting himself through the pain of riding into the wind with the rest of the peloton tucked in his slipstream just for his own gain. He is seeking to rediscover his best form after suffering a fractured coccyx in the prologue time trial of the Criterium du Dauphine in France last June that sidelined him until the season-closing Tour of Beijing in October in which he also abandoned. But his efforts were mainly for his RadioShack-Leopard teammates still in contention for the overall victory in the Tour Down Under, which finishes on Sunday.
And O'Grady took note of the 27-year-old Luxembourg star's selfless role for the sake of Belgian Ben Hermans, Portugal's Tiago Machado and New Zealand's George Bennett who were placed fourth, eighth and 10th overall after Friday's fourth stage and within 15 seconds of race leader Geraint Thomas (Sky).
O'Grady admired every bit of what he saw, having spent thousands of kilometres racing for Schleck at the front of the peloton - or ahead of it chasing down his rivals - when they were on the same team before the Australian veteran joined Orica-GreenEDGE last year.
A glow came over O'Grady who said watching Schleck riding ''on the front in January riding like a domestiqe'' was ''cool'', and added: ''He is not sitting down the back with a big ego going, 'I'm the Tour de France winner.' He is on the front riding for his team. That's character. That shows some balls.''
But Schleck is not your stereotypical sport star. Many say Schleck is too nice to win the Tour again, despite his second places in 2009 and 2011 and 2010 crown that became his when Spaniard Alberto Contador was stripped of the title for doping and he was elevated from second to first place. How Schleck took losing the yellow jersey in the final time trial with one day to go in the 2011 Tour won by Australian Cadel Evans says much of his character. Schleck wanted to congratulate the Australian Tour winner-in-waiting with the final stage into Paris, and until now has not spoken of it.
''It's true,'' Schleck said after a moment's pause. ''It was not a PR thing because I never said it [before]. I called him because I was beaten by a real champion. Somehow I was proud that I was beaten by him. The way he rode the whole Tour was incredible. It was important for me to talk to him personally, and not on the bike when the team is around. I called him and said, 'Cadel, this is Andy. I just want to congratulate you.' I said that night that I was really happy he had it. Of course I was sad that I lost it, but I was beaten by a true champion and someone I truly believe in.''
The 2011 Tour reached its climax in the last two stages in the Alps and time trial in Grenoble. Much has been spoken of the time trial where Evans took the yellow jersey, and the last mountain stage up to the ski station at L'Alpe d'Huez where Schleck asked Evans to help chase Contador down.
But it was the stage to the summit of the Col du Galibier the day before that set up the epic finale to the Tour. And it was Schleck's desperation to attack with 60 kilometres to go on the Col d'Izoard that set off the fireworks and forced Evans into an equally as desperate chase to save his Tour hopes. ''A few nights before we were going through the stages,'' Schleck said of how he and O'Grady planned the move. ''I felt so good, but this race was somehow blocked. I was fourth or fifth [overall], but I told him, 'I am not happy with how it is, I need to turn it around and can't wait any longer' .''
Schleck believes the move that O'Grady set up by riding a fierce tempo at the front of the bunch up the Col d'Izoard where Schleck attacked and rode off alone all the way up the Col du Lautaret and to the finish on the Col du Galibier where he won was a move his rivals will never allow him to repeat. ''If I do this move this year, next year or in five years they will not forget the Galibier stage and they will be straight on my arse,'' Schleck said of a day that sent roadside crowds into hysteria along with Belgian great Eddy Merckx who was following Schleck in a race organisers' car.
Schleck was stunned by his power output of 420 watts up the Col du Lautaret and 350 to 360 watts on the last four kilometres to the 2642 metre finish on Col du Galibier where the high altitude lowers a reading. ''When I was out and gaining three minutes, I pushed so many watts, like I had I never done. I had such good motivation come to me through the radio and Eddy Merckx screaming 'C'mon, Andy, you have four minutes now'.''
The image of Schleck winning and Merckx in his wake left many saying that attack was ''a la Merckx''.
But today and with the misery of a lost 2012 season behind him, many still question whether Schleck can add a second Tour win.
Schleck admits that it has been difficult retrieving his lost confidence in the peloton where riders race elbow-to-elbow at breakneck speeds and a hair's breath from touching wheels and crashing. ''I am a little, I won't say scared, but it's also normal … you have to get used to riding in the peloton again,'' he said. ''You have five guys on your left, five on your right, 50 in front of you, 50 behind. If you make a mistake it's going to hurt.''
With 60 days of racing planned before the Tour start on June 29, Schleck should have ample opportunity to be his confident self again. Even better, the Luxembourg rider who turned professional at 19 and in his first grand tour, the 2007 Giro d'Italia, placed second, believes he can come back stronger than ever before. ''I am definitely going to improve,'' he said. ''The best age of a cyclist is between 28 and 32. That is what they say.
''I hope I am not an exception. My last year made me mentally a lot stronger. I realised it is really what I want to do, win bike races. I am still recovering to come back, be good and in front in the finale of a race. That'll come. But I'm happy to be here and have a bike number on my jersey.'' But is it too much to expect Schleck, whose climbing prowess should suit this year's Tour route well, to return or improve on his best this season?
O'Grady, who at 38 has plenty of experience of being sidelined through injury - his last season ended three months early with a broken collar bone and ribs sustained in a race crash - said: ''He is going to have a tough time. You can't miss half a season. You pay for it. But he has years on his side.
''Everything through your career is a learning curve. In the tough times when you are doing it hard, that's when your real character comes out.''