Matt Rendell argues that far from being a boost for Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, Andy Schleck's absence will make their job harder at the 2012 Tour de France:
Alberto Contador won’t be there. We've known that for a while. Andy Schleck won't be there either. We learned that on Wednesday 13th June, when Schleck held a press conference to announce that he sustained a broken pelvis and is unable to compete at the 2012 Tour de France.
Some say it won't make much difference. With over 100 kilometres of time trials in this year's Tour de France, they say, Andy would never have been a contender anyway.
But that is to underestimate the psychological intimidation that climbers of Andy Schleck's ability wield ove the rest of the peloton. Most riders fear the mountain stages. Andy can't wait for them. Alberto Contador can match him on the climbs, true. That doesn't mean anyone else can. An on-form Andy Schleck would have shaped the race.
The trouble was, the high point of his season so far was a searing attack on Stage 3 of the Circuit de la Sarthe, splitting the peloton on the 10 per cent Mont des Avaloirs. Memorable for a second year pro. Pretty forgettable for a Tour contender.
Ardennes week was wretched for him: 91st in Amstel Gold and 50th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, compared with 11th and 3rd in 2011. Then, crisis: in Stage 1 of the Dauphine on 4th June, he crossed the finish line 3'10" after the stage winner, his Tour de France rival Cadel Evans.
In Stage 2, won by the Spanish climber Daniel Moreno, Andy lost 1'47" seconds. Then, in blustery conditions, his Stage 4 time trial was interrupted by a crash. By the time he went down, he'd lost a lot of time. By the time he’d finished. He'd lost nearly ten minutes on the winner.
What we didn't know at the time – what he didn't know, either – was that, in the fall, he had broken his pelvis.
Around the world, the headline writers characterised Andy’s absence as an opportunity for the other favourites. "Boost for Bradley Wiggins as rival Andy Schleck withdraws through injury" said the telegraph.co.uk.
"Schleck's pelvis injury boosts Tour hopes of Evans", opined the website of the Sydney Morning Herald, while another Australian website, dailytelegraph.com.au called Schleck's absence a "Huge boost for Cadel Evans."
The headline writers – though not necessarily the journalists whose work appears a little lower down – were mistaking cycling for tennis.
Cycling is a complex sport: the physical basis of teamwork in cycling is the slipstream. This may be a line of domestiques sharing the load ahead of their leaders but it is also the principle behind the attack and the chase, for when a single rider or a small group breaks away from the pack, their only hope of building a lead is to work together.
The more riders taking turns at the front, the greater the energy saved; however well organised, a small group cannot normally match the speed of a long, organised draft line involving many riders. This is the paradox at the heart of cycling: to compete, rival riders and rival teams have to cooperate.
Let me talk about two of the greatest rivalries in cycling history. I recently had the immense pleasure of speaking to the 1965 Tour de France winner Felice Gimondi. Actually, far more than the 1965 Tour winner. By 1969, when Eddy Merckx won his first Tour de France, Gimondi had won the Tour de l’Avenir, the Tour de France, two Tours of Italy, the Tour of Spain, the Tour de Romandie, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Brussels and the Tour of Piedmont. And then Eddie Merckx appeared.
I asked Gimondi what he might have achieved in Merckx’s absence. It seemed a question with a simple answer: without Merckx, Gimondi might have won ... well, almost everything. But that was not the answer he gave me.
‘One year,’ he told me, ‘I finished second 25 times. But bear this in mind: without Merckx, there would have been no Faema or Molteni riding at the front of the peloton and shaping the races in which I finished second. If there had been no Eddy mErckx, perhaps I’d have won even less.’
Well, the closest thing we have to a Merckx is Alberto Contador, the winner of three Tours de France, two Tours of Italy and a Tour of Spain. Or, as of his suspension on 6 February, two Tours de France, a Tour of Italy and a Tour of Spain.
When Cadel Evans heard that Contador would not be riding the Tour, he didn’t interpret it as a boost. Quite the opposite. He told the Gazzetta dello Sport, "It will be harder for me to win the Tour de France. I won’t be able use him as a reference point, and his team will not take responsibility for the race.”
Contador’s absence, he added, would encourage many more riders to try their hand, making the racing far more tactically demanding.
Andy Schleck had much the same reaction: "The race is harder without Contador. When Alberto’s on the start line, there’s a question mark over everybody else because he’s the favourite and you know he’s going to take responsibility. Now who’s going to work and take the responsibility. I believe the others will look at Cadel and me. It’s a much harder job for us than simply sitting back and watching Contador.”
Well, Andy’s gone too, and with the absence of another consistently good favourite – indeed, after the Contador’s suspension and the removal of his results, the winner of the 2010 Tour de France – there will be one team less prepared to work at the front of peloton to give the race structure and coherence.
So without Andy Schleck, the task facing Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky becomes significantly harder. Headline writers take note.
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