Curse of the former Tour champs

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Schleck AFP Former Tour de France winner Andy Schleck pulled out of the race ahead of the fourth stage because of an injured knee. Photo: Eric Feferberg

Leeds – There could have been five former Tour de France winners lining up at the start in Leeds on Saturday but instead there will be three, and one is unlikely to even finish in the top 20.

It is a measure of how the fortunes of those who have reached cycling’s summit can change so quickly.

The official record books show that the champions from 2010-12 were Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins, yet none has the slightest chance of riding into Paris on July 27 wearing yellow.

For the latter two they simply haven’t been selected by their teams.

In the case of Australian Evans, he is no longer able to compete over a three-week Grand Tour and was shifted from the Tour team to the Giro d’Italia by BMC.

The defence of his Tour crown in 2012 saw him finish seventh, upstaged by his young support rider Tejay Van Garderen, who finished fifth.

Evans wouldn’t give up, though, and was joint leader with the American in 2013 but slumped to a 39th-placed finish – although Van Garderen’s own 45th final position completed a miserable Tour for BMC.

At 37, Evans is no longer able to maintain his form through to a major tour’s last week, as he showed at the Giro in May, wearing pink for four stages but cracking on the tough climbs of the final week to end up eighth.

So to Wiggins, who only two years ago made history by becoming the first Briton to win the world’s biggest, greatest and most famous cycle race.

He followed that up with Olympic timetrial gold, his fourth Games title following three on the track.

Yet while in 2013 he missed the Tour through a knee injury, this time around he has simply been judged not good enough by Team Sky.

Or perhaps it’s not a case of being not good enough, after all he did win the Tour of California and finished ninth at Paris-Roubaix.

But the potential for a personality clash with reigning champion and undisputed team leader Chris Froome, as well as possible conflicts of interest and Wiggins’s media, or rather headline-friendly mood-swings, ensured the popular 34-year-old was very much dispensable.

As for Schleck, the problem is very different and considerably more mystifying.

He finished second in the Tour three years in a row from 2009 to 2011, eventually being awarded the 2010 victory after Alberto Contador was stripped of his win for doping.

Yet Schleck crashed at the 2012 Criterium du Dauphine, breaking a bone in his lower back, and missed the Tour that year while his brother Frank, with whom he is especially close, subsequently was given a one-year doping ban.

Since coming back to the sport from his Dauphine injuries, Schleck has been far less than a shadow of his former self.

He finished 20th at last year’s Tour, complaining that it was tough to rediscover his form after such injuries.

But loss of confidence and form can only go so far to explain what has happened to Schleck.

His finish in the 2013 Tour has been his highest in any race since coming second at the 2011 edition and he suffered the indignation of being announced as a support rider for his less-talented older brother Frank and veteran Haimar Zubeldia by his Trek team for the Grand Boucle.

He can have no complaints, though, as he failed to finish any of the Ardennes Classics in April and then managed an unimpressive 29th place at last month’s Tour of Switzerland, more than 15 minutes off the pace.

For a former Tour winner to struggle up the climbs in a mountainous stage race with his rivals’s support riders is nothing short of a spectacular fall from grace.

What’s more, Schleck is only 29, the same age as Froome, and should be in his prime. Quite unlike Froome, he was a brilliant junior tipped for great things.

But perhaps, just like Evans and Wiggins, his time has come and gone, yet before its own time.

And while the world’s focus in July will be on Froome and Contador, even perhaps Vincenzo Nibali, Schleck will likely cut an anonymous figure somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Oh how the mighty have fallen. – Sapa-AFP



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