With Andy Schleck (right) out of the Tour, there will be no repeat podium in 2012. Photo: HTO3/Flickr
Last fall, when two of the biggest teams in pro cycling, Leopard-Trek and Radioshack, announced their merger, expectations were high that the new super team, Radioshack-Nissan-Trek, would steamroll the peloton and put one of the Schleck brothers, likely Andy, on the top step of the Tour de France podium at last.
Fast forward nine months, and the team has failed to live up to expectations. In fact, with only three notable wins to its credit so far in 2012—Fabian Cancellara won the Strade Bianchi and stage 7 at Tirreno-Adriatico in March before breaking his collar bone at Paris-Roubaix, and Jakob Fulgsang took the overall at the Tour of Luxembourg earlier this month—it's no overstatement to say that the merger has thus far been a flop. Team director Johan Bruyneel acknowledged the grim situation in recent weeks, calling the team's performance "far below expectations" and "unacceptable."
And as the springtime failures have amassed (the team came up empty at the Ardennes classics, Frank Schleck pulled out of the Giro citing injury), rumors of strife between Bruyneel and the Luxembourger brothers have amplified. Late last month, Bruyneel even implied that neither of the Luxembourgers were guaranteed a spot at the Tour if they didn't shape up.
Now it looks like Bruyneel's veiled threat is coming half true.
This morning, Andy Schleck announced that he will skip the Tour de France because of an injury he sustained at the Critérium du Dauphiné last week. At a hastily called press conference from Strassen, Luxembourg, Schleck sat between his two doctors and confirmed that he has a fracture in the sacral body (S3) of his pelvis. The injury stems from a crash the 27-year-old took at the stage 4 time trial in the Dauphiné last week, when he was literally blown off the course by a gust of wind. Though Schleck finished the time trial and fought through the next day's stage, he withdrew on the penultimate day of the race because of ongoing pain. Initial x-rays showed no major damage, but after Schleck continued to complain of pain on Monday, an MRI revealed the fracture.
“Yesterday, when I came out of the MRI scan and they told me the news, my world fell apart," Schleck said. "I won't win the 2012 Tour de France. I won't even be in it. This is the biggest disappointment of my life.” Schleck's orthopedic surgeon, Thorsten Gerich, said that while the break doesn't compromise the stability of the rider's pelvis, it is extremely painful because it sits squarely between two nerves. The doctor expects the injury to heal in four to six weeks, during which time Schleck will have to remain off the bike.
On the face of it, the injury is the biggest crisis yet for the already beleaguered Radioshack team. But personally I think it might be a blessing in disguise. Consider:
1) After poor showings and early withdrawals from races all spring, Andy's form ahead of the Tour was already a huge question mark. Furthermore, with 101.5 time trialing kilometers (Schleck's achilles heel), it was a race he was unlikely to win even with perfect condition. Given his sidelining, Schleck won't have to risk the ignominy of yet still another second place or worse, and his team can focus its efforts elsewhere.
2) Pundits have long argued that Andy and Frank hold one another back when racing side by side in a grand tour. It's debatable, but with Andy out of the picture, Frank won't even have to worry about the question. He can simply fight for the win without regard for his brother's aspirations. The elder Schleck is showing strong form this week at the Tour de Suisse (he's currently second overall and leader in the mountain points race), so it could be a fortuitous break for him.
3) A mild furor has arisen in recent days at the exclusion of Chris Horner from Radioshack's Tour team. Horner says he's been slighted; Bruyneel said the American knowingly relinquished his chance by not racing the Tour de Suisse. He-said-he-said aside, Shleck's exclusion might open the door for the team to diplomaticaly welcome back the popular American, who is arguably as strong a Tour contender as any of Radioshack's remaining riders.
4) At his press conference, Schleck said that he will now take aim at the Vuelta a España. That will make Spain's grand tour more exciting than ever, with Alberto Contador also slated for a comeback run (following his doping ban) at the September event. Can you say 2010 TDF rematch?
No injury is a good one, and the Tour de France is likely to be a bit less lively without Andy Schleck. But the news gives Radioshack-Nissan-Trek an unexpected chance to reset and reload. Now the team has not just one, but two grand tours in which to possibly salvage its season. Whether or not Bruyneel can use the unfortunate situation to finally rally his troops remains to be seen. But at the very least, it's providing us spectators and fans more intrigue than a new season of Game of Thrones.