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An interview with Fränk Schleck, October 17, 2007

Fränk Schleck: Motivation running strong

Fränk Schleck demonstrated that his form is on target for the end of the season when he made the elite five-man selection at the World Championships, then won the Giro dell'Emilia last Saturday. The 27 year-old of Team CSC is determined to push on through the end of 2007 for one of his three favourite Classics, the Giro di Lombardia. Gregor Brown of Cyclingnews spoke with the Luxemburger in Stuttgart, Germany, prior to his fourth place finish.

Moien Luxembourg!

Schleck representing Luxembourg
Photo ©: Shane Stokes
(Click for larger image)

There are very few professionals that come from the small landlocked country in Western Europe. One of the other big names from Luxembourg is Fränk's brother, Andy. The two joined forces in the five-man team for the 2007 World Championships, where Fränk got a kick out of flying the country's flag.

"It is always great to put on the national jersey, trying to keep the Luxembourg flag high, especially since it is a very small country," Schleck noted. "Being fourth in the rankings with three riders, that is pretty amazing, and it just shows that Luxembourg has a big potential in cycling.

Schleck puts Luxembourg on the map
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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"We are proud to put Luxembourg on display in the races. Through the whole year, as soon as you achieve a good result, of course it is Team CSC, but in one way it is always Luxembourg. 'He is from Luxembourg. That is Luxembourg.'"

Though the Olympics are approaching in Beijing Schleck is focused on the overall racing calendar, preferring to give the race more attention as it draws nearer.

"We are bike riders, we have about 90 to 100 races a year, you have so many things to take care of and to think about. Races are always coming up so I never really have the time to think about the Olympics. It is not just another race, and we do get motivated for it when it does come. When we are heading there next year, when we are near the date, it will be very important. However, right now, you can't think too much about it, it is just another race."

Away from national events like the Worlds and Olympics, Schleck also takes pride in his country for its nature. "I love it there. For me it is a really good training parcours, better than Italy or Spain, for me it is just the best training. There is minimal traffic and you have really nice roads that you can use. Okay, we miss the eight-kilometre climbs, but I have been able to find the climbs that take about 15 minutes, and those are perfect for me.

"It is also nice to be out in the nature. In the wintertime I take off six to seven weeks. My philosophy has always been that way. A lot of riders will only take a two or three week break in the winter, and then start off training again. Their problem is that they just don't have anything else to do, but I have so many things to do, so many hobbies. I am not going to get bored at home. I will hunt for wild boars or deer, anything.

In 2005 Schleck helped put Luxembourg on the map when he rocketed away from all the favourites in the 2006 Amstel Gold Race while wearing his national championship jersey. By leaving riders like Bettini, Boogerd and Rebellin behind with 10 kilometres to go, he also put himself on cycling's map as a marked rider in the Classics.

That win as well as his Tour de France stage win at l'Alpe d'Huez would have been hard to top in 2007, but while Schleck has just one win this season, a stage of the Tour de Suisse, he's a strong favourite for the final race of the season, the Giro di Lombardia. Should he succeed in winning the 'race of the falling leaves', he will have bagged two of his three favourite Classics, with only Liège-Bastogne-Liège missing from his palmares.

Giro di Lombardia: Fränk's race

Schleck showed that he has the form to tackle the season finale in Lombardia this Saturday with a strong performance at Worlds, where he made the final move but just missed the podium. This last week he finished a close second to Italian champion Giovanni Visconti in the Coppa Sabatini and then went on to win the Giro dell'Emilia.

"My morale is good because I have always wanted to ride a very good season finale, especially the Lombardia race," to Cyclingnews on a cool German morning as the rain beat down and the elite men were prepping for the Worlds time trial. Finishing the year strong is a high priority for the 27 year-old. "I like to finish my season with a good result and in good shape so I can really enjoy my winter. It is a lot easier for me to go into the winter with a nice result instead of just finishing the season with decent shape. If I would finish with good form I will be very satisfied with myself and I can really, really enjoy my winter."

His love affair with Giro di Lombardia began in 2003. It was his first year to line up for the Fall Classic (the last year he race finished in Bergamo), and at 23 years-old he finished in 17th behind winner Michele Bartoli. Schleck did not race in 2004, but he was back in 2005 and 2006.

"I am dreaming on being on the podium of the Tour, I don't know if I can achieve it... I will train and give the maximum to achieve that goal. I still believe that I can do it."

-Schleck on his career ambitions

"That is my race," he commented with enthusiasm. "I don't know why, but I love that race. It is the last race of the season; you really can kick your guts out one last time before the party season [laughs - ed.], before the nice winter, the hunting and fishing season. The race is a passion for me; I really want to win that race one time in my career."

In 2005 he came closest to victory when he made the winning move over the race's defining climb, the Madonna del Ghisallo. He hung on through the narrow roads, up the climbs of Civiglio and San Fermo, however, in the final sprint of three he was unable to match the kick of Bettini. He finished third, behind Gilberto Simoni, in that same Luxembourg national jersey that he would carry to victory the next season in Amstel.

"Ghisallo is a very special climb. It is always exciting and makes the selection. Everyone knows that you don't have to do anything before. Afterwards, you have another three to four climbs that are very hard but normally the final selection has been made on the Ghisallo, and you have already been able to note who the strong riders are."

Other Classics, like Milano-Sanremo or Paris-Roubaix, might resonate more with fans, but for Schleck his three favourite Classics are ones that excite him and ones that he has the possibility of winning.

Schleck loves the Classics
Photo ©: Cyclingnews.com
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"For me there are three big Classics," he stated as we continued to speak on Thursday morning in Stuttgart. "Of course Roubaix and [Tour of] Flanders are huge, but I will not win those, and so for me Amstel, Liège and Lombardia are the nicest Classics. Every rider has his own races that he likes, and for me they are those three, and of course the Tour."

He had spent a year with Team CSC in 2002 as a stagiaire, and one year later he got the call to be part of its team for the season-ending race. "I did the race when it finished in Bergamo; I think it was my second or third year. In Bergamo, that was when [Michele] Bartoli won, and I finished in 11th or 12th [17th - ed.]. From that moment forward I have just loved that race."

Since 2004 the race has moved to its new finish in Como, where it finished in the 1960s and 1970s when it started in Milano. 2004 through 2006 it started in Mendrisio, Switzerland, but for this year it will begin in the hometown of the 2008 Worlds, Varese.

"I think it does not really matter about the parcours," he concluded. "I think it was nice when we finished in Bergamo, but when we finish in Como is also nice. You have that very hard climb in the final, after 250 kilometres; it is quite hard – the San Fermo."

Win or lose, it is clear Schleck will be a factor in Lombardia, however, if he is able to write his name in the annals of Lombardia, his season will be on par with his stellar 2006.

Form vs. Luck

Schleck makes his winning move
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
(Click for larger image)

Schleck remains proud of his 2007 season, despite the absense of high-profile wins, and thinks that his results don't tell the whole story of his strengths, especially in the Spring Classics. "I never really understand this. A lot of people – well they never really tell me – believe that in 2006 I was much stronger. I don't see that as true, I won Amstel, but this year I finished third in Liège. Finishing top five or winning a race like that, [the difference] is just a matter of luck."

His performance in this year's Ardennes Classics – Amstel, Flèche Wallonne and Liège were hampered by an untimely crash in Amstel with less than fifty kilometres to go. He fought hard to rejoin the favourites, but it was too late as the winning move with Stefan Schumacher was already up the road. He finished 10th and then went on to place seventh at La Flèche Wallonne on top of the mighty Mur de Huy without knowing he had fractured a vertebrae in Holland. Even after the fracture was revealed he went ahead and competed in Liège.

Even without a win during the week he was content. "I was very happy with that [third place in Liège], and the seventh in Flèche-Wallonne. Those two top tens in the Classics were very good for me, and I was happy it."

Schleck also denied that his 2006 results were because he had more freedom to attack - like in Amstel when he went on the lam from 10 kilometres out. Schleck believes that he was already marked last year, and the winning move was due to from top form, luck and good timing.

"In the finale of a Classic everyone is just à bloc; everyone just goes as hard as possible. Already in 2006 I had a name, I was just lucky to attack at the right moment. This year in Amstel I crashed, so every race is different. I don't think my form was any better last year, I was just luckier in some races.

Tour ambitions

Schleck on the Galibier
Photo ©: Luc Claessen
(Click for larger image)

Schleck was named as a co-captain for the Tour de France this year with his CSC team-mate Carlos Sastre after Schleck put in a strong Tour de Suisse, despite it being only his second shot at La Grande Boucle. "The Tour de Suisse went very good for me. I won a stage and spent two days in the yellow jersey," Schleck recalled.

The Tour de Suisse marked his first time to ever wear the leader's jersey of a race as a professional. He held the yellow top until the epic stage six that included a hailstorm at the beginning of the day and then the finale of Crans-Montana. "I lost the lead because some how I got a little sick. I had a little bit of diarrhoea; I didn't feel so good. But still, I finished top ten yet again." Three days after losing the lead he closed out the Swiss tour in seventh overall.

When the Tour came around, Schleck was unsure of the plan for him to focus on the general classification, and decided that he would work for Sastre – but that doesn't mean his Tour ambitions ended with two bad days . "We went to the Tour de France, and I said 'hey, I will be here to help Carlos.' I don't think I am ready to be a big leader yet. It happened to me that I had two very bad days: on the Galibier and one very bad day on the finish to Plateau-de-Beille."

"I still finished 16th or 17th [17th - ed.] in the final overall, and in the Tour that is a very good result. I am happy about it. I know I will be back next year, I will be as strong as every year."

Sastre is getting older, making way for Schleck to lead the red and white Danish squad, but there is another rider making waves. His younger brother, Andy, finished second in the Giro d'Italia, his first Grand Tour, and conquered the maglia bianca of best young rider along the way. The team will have to determine how to utilize its key men in 2008; deciding if Andy should try to go one spot better in the Giro or have a swing at the Tour.

If Andy is to ride the Tour Fränk believes it could only help his chances in the fight for the overall. "It is a little early to say if Andy will ride the Tour de France, but if he is in shape leading to July then, yeah, he will be doing the Tour. That will be a big help for me as well. Having my brother on the team gives me a stronger morale, and I am probably the only rider who can bring their family to the Tour, so it is great."

In 2008 and the following years, Schleck will be attempting to conquer the Tour de France. The ambitions don't end there, he will continue as he has done in the past years, trying to win another one of his favourite Classics.

"I showed it last year, I won a Classic and I was very good in the Tour. This year, I showed the same form. You can win a Classic, have a break and then get ready for the Tour. I think it is possible."

Therefore July will continue to be wrapped with his dream of another Ardennes Classic in the spring and the 'race of the falling leaves' – Lombardia – in the autumn. The days around these season's goals are filled with training and racing, optimised to achieve wins in the coveted races.

"You know, you have goals in you life, you have goals on your bike. I am dreaming on being on the podium of the Tour, I don't know if I can achieve it, I don't know if I can ever make it. I hope to achieve it. I know that one thing is certain, I will train and give the maximum to achieve that goal. I still believe that I can do it.

"2005 to 2007, the past years worked out well for me, and I believe that there is no need to change a plan that works," he continued of his 2008 plans. "I will be more or less on the same schedule. All these races I do, it is a pleasure for me and I like to race."

The pleasure was evident in Stuttgart at the World Championships. Schleck made the made the final five-man move, and even though he missed out on the rainbow jersey his hunger for a win remains.

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