Can Bruyneel get Schleck over the hump? - NBC Sports

Can Bruyneel get Schleck over the hump?
Manager has had amazing Tour success, but his top rider has been exasperating
Reuters
Radioshack team rider Andy Schleck of Luxembourg cycles during the individual time trial, first stage of the 70th Paris-Nice race on March 4.
May 8, 2012, 2:05 pm

"He can take his'n and beat your'n, and he can take your'n and beat his'n."

- Former NFL coach Bum Phillips, speaking of legendary Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant

Johan Bruyneel has been behind a remarkable number of successes in Grand Tours. His riders have won nine Tours de France, two Tours of Italy, and three Tours of Spain. It's worth remembering that one of his Giro victories was via Paolo Savoldelli and two of the Vuelta wins were from Roberto Heras (who after he left US Postal had a fourth win, in 2005, stripped for doping).

But the vast majority of Bruyneel's Tours victories came with two superlative riders: Lance Armstrong (seven Tours de France) and Alberto Contador (two Tours, a Giro, and a Vuelta). Whether by luck or design (Armstrong partly credits Bruyneel for his conversion to stage racer), Bruyneel has had a remarkable managerial career because of the talent of his star riders-as if an NFL coach had somehow managed to find himself working with Tom Brady and then Ben Roethlisberger.

Bruyneel is on his fourth major team formation. US Postal-Discovery was his first, then Astana, where he installed some of his ex-riders and managers. From Astana to RadioShack last year he did the same. And now in 2012, he's running the merger of RadioShack and Leopard.

His 2012 team is, on paper, arguably his strongest team ever and certainly the deepest since the "blue train" of the 2003-era Postal Service squad. But it's also his toughest challenge.

At Radioshack-Nissan, Bruyneel has a bevy of Grand Tour contenders: the Schleck brothers, Andreas Kloden, Chris Horner, and Jakob Fuglsang, who will captain the team at the Giro.

He has strong support riders, including climbers like Haimar Zubeldia and Maxime Monfort and rouleurs such as Greg Rast and Hayden Roulston. There's developing talent (Matt Busche, Jesse Sergeant). Seasoned leadership-Jens Voigt, anyone? And one of the best Classics riders of his generation in Fabian Cancellara.

For all that, the team has just two wins this season, although they came close in Tirreno-Adriatico (Horner was 2nd); Milan-San Remo (Cancellara was 2nd); and other races.

Bruyneel was openly frustrated with how his talented team raced at the Ardennes Classics. The team had one finisher-Frank Schleck, 12th in the first main chase-at Amstel. Ben Hermans was next best, at 70th. And Liege was a disaster with the elder Schleck an anonymous 23rd.

Best Bikes of 2012
How to Lead Out a Sprinter
Bicycling's Go Faster Eating Plan
50 Golden Rules of Cycling

The younger Schleck has battled illness and poor form all spring. He didn't finish Paris-Nice because of sickness and dropped out of the snow-plagued Volta Catalunya. But observers said that Schleck was out of the game before the weather even really turned for the worse.

And now there's been a public spat between Bruyneel and Andy over Bruyneel's decision to keep Kim Anderson out of the Tour de France team. Anderson is Schleck's longtime director-first at CSC and then at Leopard last year.

Bruyneel seemed almost annoyed when asked to respond to Andy's publicly stated wish to have Anderson in a team car in France. "The decision has been made," he said, sounding not unlike an exasperated parent who finally employs the old "Because I said so" chestnut when his authority is challenged.

Schleck is perhaps the most mercurial and frustrating racer riding today. He's undeniably talented. But he also has well-known weak spots (descending, time-trialling) that he's either unable or unwilling to work on. This year, he seems to be behind form and low on motivation.

And there is his penchant for complaining. At the Gap stage of last year's TdF, he complained about the wet descent that cost him time, as if not all riders had dealt with the same conditions; after Fleche Wallonne he complained no one would attack, even though his own attack, with 40km to go, came at a stupid moment and there were several other, smarter attacks that followed. Schleck is easy to like and hard to root for.

Schleck is nominally a winner of the Tour de France now, even if the title was handed to him in a courtroom and not on the racecourse. He has said he doesn't feel it's a true victory and, outside of that legal 2010 Tour de France win, is still hunting his first overall stage-race victory since 2004, when he was an espoir.

It's Bruyneel's job to get him over that hump. The team is fantastically deep. It has one of the largest budgets in the sport, premier partners for equipment and training, spot-on logistics and support, and a seasoned, savvy manager.

If Andy Schleck can't win there, can he ever? Bruyneel is faced with the most daunting challenge of his career. How does he motivate and improve Andy (especially on a Tour course which does not seem to favor him)? Are Andy's post-Liege comments reflective of a genuine shift? How does Bruyneel balance his need to win with whoever is the best rider (and please backer Flavio Becca) with his need to keep the Luxembourg duo front and center for countryman . Flavio Becca?

If Bruyneel can make a winner out of Andy, he might be in the conversation for best manager ever. If not, he might be remembered more for his fantastic luck in working with Armstrong and Contador, the most dominant riders of their generation.

In some ways Schleck reminds me of another fantastically talented racer who never quite delivered on his immense promise-a quixotic, intensely loyal (even when it hurt him), and genuinely likable rider who never seemed fully at ease in the sport.

I always wondered what history would have been like if Bruyneel had managed Jan Ullrich rather than Lance Armstrong.



Slideshow

NBC Sports
Channel Finder