Frank Schleck Says Goodbye to 15 Years on the Bike at Il Lombardia

As the season drew to a close with the final World Tour race of Il Lombardia last weekend, Trek-Segafredo said goodbye to two riders who have become mainstays of the peloton over the past decade and a half.  We take a look at the careers of Frank Schleck and Ryder Hesjedal in this two-part end of season series…

Trek-Segafredo End of Season Special, Part 1

Frank Schleck – Crashes, Climbs and Doping Control. 

Turning pro in 2003 for Team CSC, Frank Schleck closed out fifteen years in the professional peloton at the Race of the Falling Leaves on 1st October 2016.  Growing up, Schleck was something of a racing thoroughbred in his native Luxembourg; his father Johnny having spent nine years as a bike racer and his grandfather Gustave a competitive rider in the 1930s.  Together with his younger brother Andy, the two Schlecks formed part of the generation of riders who turned pro as the Armstrong era was drawing to a close, their obvious talent and potential marking them out as Grand Tour contenders alongside the likes of Alberto Contador.

Although Andy was eventually crowned as Tour de France winner in 2010 following Contador’s positive clenbuterol test and subsequent stripping of the title, both Schleck brothers seemed destined to suffer dramatic crashes in greater number than dramatic victories; indeed, it was a serious fall at the 2014 Tour de France which ended his brother Andy’s career in the saddle.

Early in his professional career, before crashes and scandals had taken some of the gloss off Schleck’s squeaky-clean image, the older brother took a number of notable victories which only increased the belief that Frank would one day win a Grand Tour.  In 2005, two years after signing with CSC, Schleck won the National Road Race Championships in Luxenbourg.  A third place at the Giro de Lombardia, 4th at the Tour de Suisse, and 7th at Paris-Nice rounded out a successful season.  The following year, Schleck won the biggest race of his career thus far, the Amstel Gold Race.  A top ten placing at the Tour de France followed, earning 10th place by virtue of solid climbing performances including an impressive win on Stage 15, when the race scaled Alpe d’Huez.  Schleck, aged 26, was well aware of the legendary status of the Alpe, uttering “it will take me a while before I realise that I’ve won here”.

Two years later, in 2008, the Tour returned to Alpe d’Huez, with another memorable stage.  Schleck, wearing the yellow jersey, was attacked by a member of his own team, Carlos Sastre.  Speaking about Sastre’s attack earlier this year, Schleck downplayed the incident.  “Can I be disappointed?  Yes…but the team comes first”.  It had been Sastre’s own decision to attack, stated Schleck, not a planned move under direction from the team car.  “We knew we had to do something, but it was not planned that he would attack at the beginning…what matters is that we won the Tour…everyone congratulated him, and so did I”.  Whether Schleck could have won the General Classification we’ll never know, although his team were certainly strong enough, and Schleck himself finished 5th after three weeks of hard racing.  2008 was a strong season for the elder Schleck brother, as he once again won the National Road Race Championships, and returned a 2nd place in the Amstel Gold Race, with 3rd at Liège-Bastogne- Liège.

tour_de_france_2008_kohl_f_schleck_21592935973
Image: Wikipedia

Scandal was just around the corner however, and in October 2008, Schleck was forced to admit having made a payment of €7000 to a Swiss bank account associated with the disgraced Spanish doping doctor Eufemiamo Fuentes in 2006.  Bjarne Riis, director of Schleck’s Team CSC-SaxoBank, released a press statement confirming that the Luxembourger had been temporarily suspended until the rider could ‘clarify his position’.  CSC-SaxoBank explained that they had ‘received a thorough briefing’ from Schleck, and awaited the ruling of both the Luxembourg anti-doping authorities and the UCI.  Schleck provided his team and the anti-doping agencies with full bank statements dating back several years in order to prove that no further payments had been made to Dr Fuentes.  Detailed blood values were also supplied, as proof that no tampering had taken place.

Schleck claimed, in a statement released through CSC-SaxoBank, that he had ‘never used or attempted use of a prohibited substance…or method’.  The transaction had been made in exchange for training advice from ‘experts who presumably worked with some of the biggest names in sport…there was no suspicion…of any unlawful action’.  It was claimed that Schleck ‘interrupted’ the contact after speaking with his father and friends, and realised that he had made a ‘serious blunder’.  The Luxembourg anti-doping authorities examined the evidence and cleared Schleck of any doping offences, with CSC reinstating him when the investigation was resolved.

After returning to a full race schedule in 2009, Schleck won his home tour, the Tour de Luxembourg, also crossing the line first place on Stage 3.  A stage win on Stage 8 of the Tour of California was matched by claiming the Most Aggressive Rider in the same stage, whilst Schleck secured 2nd place at Paris-Nice, and retained his 5th place in the Tour de France with a stage win on Stage 17.  Whilst attempting the Amstel Gold Race, Schleck suffered one of the many crashes that haunted both his and his brother’s careers, and was taken to hospital with concussion.

His 2010 Tour de France attempt was also affected by a crash.  After winning the Tour de Suisse, Schleck started the Tour de France in good form.  Whilst attempting to ride on the cobbles on Stage 3, a surface he’d never enjoyed, Schleck crashed heavily and fractured his clavicle in three places, causing him to retire from the race.  Fans had grown used to watching the Schleck brothers launching twin attacks and working together to ignite the race; this time younger brother Andy was forced to compete without fraternal support.  At the end of July, both brothers announced their intention to leave SaxoBank, heading instead to a brand new Luxembourg based team, eventually confirmed as being called Leopard Trek.

After recovering from his Tour de France crash, Schleck took 5th place in the Vuelta a España as Vincenzo Nibali won the General Classification.  2011 saw the Leopard Trek team competing for the first time.  Schleck had a successful season, winning the National Road Race Championships, the Critérium International, and 2nd place at Liège-Bastogne- Liège.  In July, Frank stood on the Tour de France podium in 3rd place, with brother Andy in 2nd; the first time in the history of the Tour that siblings had shared the overall podium.  Looking back on his 15-year career, this moment proved to be his proudest.  “I could mention a lot of moments that have stood out, but finishing on the podium at the Tour de France has to be my proudest moment as a bike rider – that memory will never be far away”.  At the end of the season, both brothers joined the RadioShack-Nissan team.

If 2011 had produced his proudest moment, 2012 brought Frank down to Earth hard.  After crashing on Stage 6 and losing two minutes, Schleck’s Tour de France chances looked remote.  Things got much worse on the second rest day, when RadioShack-Nissan removed Schleck from the race after an A sample taken by doping control during the race tested positive for the diuretic xipermide.  Xipermide is banned by WADA for its use as a masking agent for performance enhancing drugs.  Schleck asked for his B sample to be tested, stating that if it came back positive, “I will argue that I have been the victim of poisoning”.  RadioShack-Nissan spokesman Philippe Maertens claimed “the team is not able to explain the adverse findings at this point”.  When the B sample tested positive, Schleck voluntarily attended Pau police station.

He was later handed a 12-month ban, back dated to the time of the positive test.  The anti-doping authorities accepted that Schleck had ‘not ingested the substance intentionally’, which meant that the standard 2-year ban was reduced to 12-months.  Weeks before his ban was due to expire, RadioShack-Nissan terminated Schleck’s contract, leaving him without a team.  Later that month, Trek Bicycles bought out the team’s World Tour license, announcing that Schleck had once again been awarded a contract.  Returning to racing after waiting out the agonising 12-month ban, compounded by the stress and drama of being unexpectedly dropped by his team, Schleck never quite regained his form or fulfilled his early potential.

His 2014 season saw Schleck once again win first place at the National Road Racing Championships.  An 8th place at Grand Prix de Wallonie, 9th in the Tour de Luxembourg and Milan-Torino, and 6th at the Critérium International were his best results, with a 12th place in the Tour de France.  Schleck did not take part in the 2015 edition of the Tour, and finished in 34th place at his last ever attempt at the race earlier this season.  His final win was a stage victory in the 2015 Vuelta, on the mountainous route from Luarca to Ermita del Alta.  Saturday’s Il Lombardia was the last time that Frank Schleck competed as a professional rider.

“Everyone told me that I need to enjoy the last kilometres because it’s going to be something special, and I was waiting to feel this special moment, but nothing really happened…I just felt really tired like I normally do after a race!” exclaimed Schleck after he finished the Monument.  “But then when I came to the bus there was a nice reception from the boys, the team, the fan club, and some family, my kids, my wife, and they reminded me that this is it!”

Schleck had announced his retirement at a press conference in Brazil during the Rio Olympics, having previously indicated during the spring that he intended to continue. “Three years ago when I couldn’t race wasn’t nice, so I enjoy it even more, racing my bike, and working even harder”.  It appears that the efforts of the season took their toll on the rider however, as he confirmed his retirement prior to Saturday’s race.  “There is never an easy way to stop doing something you love to do…I’ve always wanted to retire at a level where I was competitive and fit”.

After completing his final race, Schleck found it difficult to imagine that he would not be racing his bike again in 2017.   “I think it will come in the next days and then I will realise it’s finished”.  Looking back on his 15-years as a professional, Schleck reflected on what he called a “long journey”.

“I am happy with the decision…I’ve had many highlights and some nice results…I had some bad periods also, but that’s where you build character…you have to get over those moments, and you fight back, and you keep going, and I am proud of that.  I am proud of my career and I have nothing to regret”.

Team mate Ryder Hesjedal also ended his career at Il Lombardia, although unfortunately he was not able to complete the race, abandoning on the mountainous section which took in five successive summits.  Read the Freewheeling overview of his career in part two of our Trek-Segafredo end of season special.

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