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July 26, 2006
A small country becomes great again - the remarkable renaissance of Luxemburg cycling

Frank Schleck great winner of the Amstel Gold Race (Photo by Roland Miny)

A lot of water has flown under the bridge since the epoch of François Faber and Nicolas Frantz. It’s been ages since the days of the Clemens Brothers, of Bim Diederich, Jean Goldschmit, Jäng Kirchen, and Marcel Ernzer. And most of all, it’s been a very long half century since the first victory of Charly Gaul at a great Tour, in this case, the Giro d’Italia in 1956. But then again, the cycling season of 2004 brought a series of "above the norm" results for Luxemburg, which at the time, gave something to dream about, even to the most fervent amateurs of the Little Queen. But the results speak for themselves:

- Benoît Joachim, wearing the "amarillo" vest for two days at the Tour of Spain;

- Frank Schleck, 10th at the World Championship with the same time as the winner;

- Kim Kirchen, 6th at the Athens Olympic Games.

These performances, remarkable, to say the least, did not fail to ignite among fans of our road warriors, the wildest hopes for the 2005 season. There are high hopes for the professional pack, fortified by the young, but promising, 19 year old Andy Schleck, winner of the Flèche du Sud in 2004 - the most coveted "elite" competition in the Nation, after the Tour of Luxemburg.

2005 – Season "full of glorious wheels"

While we tried to advocate patience and sense, to avoid burning the legs, so to speak, the 2005 season confirmed our wishes. We didn’t have to wait long to see Frank Schleck finish in 2nd place in the final ranking of the Mediterranean Tour after having won against the clock; and to see Kim Kirchen win the opening races, one after the other in Italy, with the Trophy of Laigueglia and then the Grand Prix of Chiasso in Switzerland.

Kirchen has since won the 4th leg of the international week of "Coppi-Bartali" making the 2005 season look even more exciting and promising for the small group of Luxemburg cycling fans. In fact, the best was yet to come. Frank Schleck and Kim Kirchen came 7th and 13th at the Paris-Nice race, and Kim Kirchen finished 2nd at the Flèche Wallonne in the heights of Huy behind the Italian Danilo Di Luca - the future (and first) winner of the new UCI Pro Tour.

From the affirmation of Kirchen to the blossoming of Schleck

Today Kim Kirchen’s good 11th place at the Amstel Gold Race has almost slipped into oblivion, and that tells a lot about the quality of the performances that were added to the list of Luxemburg winners in the rest of the season. While Andy Schleck raced ahead in the faraway lands of Georgia in the United States, his brother Frank disappeared in a cloud of dust at the Tour of Switzerland, where he was competing as the leader of his CSC team, after a Tour of Italy entirely devoted to the cause of Ivan Basso. 4th in Arosa, 8th in Verbier and finally 2nd in Ulrichen, Frank Schleck finished three times among the first ten in the three great mountain legs to finally fall only 5" short of the rostrum and be pipped at the post by Jan Ullrich in the Tour of Switzerland, reputed to be the toughest multi-leg race after the three great ones: Vuelta, Giro, and Tour de France.

The fact that Kim Kirchen had to withdraw due to physical problems from the 11th leg of the Tour de France cast a faint shadow over a magnificent season and almost made us forget about the nice 6th and 4th places achieved during the legs of Nancy and of Gérardmer.

Kirchen, obsessed with the goal of participating in the World Championships in Madrid, did his utmost to obtain selection by finishing 2nd at the Coppa Placci before achieving a leg victory and final victory at the Tour of Poland, his sweetest victory of all. Previously not one Luxemburg representative could be accepted because of the new, incomprehensible regulations of the UCI. However, he invested too much of his strength in that competition to hope for a good performance at the World Championships. Frank Schleck, exasperated by not being able to comply, probably used up his resources by finishing his season with a bunch of honorary places in a variety of world races, two of which took place at the Pro Tour Circuit.

With a second behind Paolo Bettini, and a first at the Championship of Zurich - only one week after the World Championship - Frank put it all behind him and came 2nd, once again, in the Tour of Emilia, behind Gilberto Simoni. He finished beautifully on the rostrum of the famous Tour of Lombardy after having been beaten in the sprint only by Bettini and Simoni – a hell of a performance!

The 2005 season was so rich in first-class results, that we tend to forget about such excellent places like Andy Schleck’s (7th at the Tour of the Walloon Region, 12th at the Tour of Cologne) or the fact that Benoît Joachim did his very best all along the Tour of Italy in order to contribute to the final victory of his team-mate Paolo Savoldelli.

By the way, this rapid overview of the 2005 season illustrates the density of the international cycling calendar. Moreover, it encourages us to observe that sometimes, one has to be patient and understanding with respect to our best sportsmen, while keeping in mind that nowadays, it is no longer possible to be among the very best on every occasion.

There are a few who can face such a challenge. Their names are Bettini, Di Luca, Rebellin, Boogerd, Vinokourov, Simoni, Valverde, each of them members of that elite group. And yet, we can also say that Kim Kirchen and Frank Schleck have earned a place among these rare athletes of the international pack. During the nine-month season they have distinguished themselves.

In conclusion, 2005 has been a wonderful year for Luxemburg cycling and whatever hopes were raised by that season "full of glorious wheels" were realised in the heights of Monte Bondone in October, when Luxemburg’s greatest cycling champion of all times, Charly Gaul, the “Angel of the Mountains” was immortalized by an entire nation – one that venerates and loves its champions. That Sunday, nobody had the slightest suspicion that the marvellous year of 2005 would turn into a year of mourning. Just a few weeks later, Charly Gaul, one of cycling's greatest-ever climbers, died just two days short of his 73rd birthday. Gaul was hospitalized after a fall at his home in Trig. He left behind a wife and a daughter. The “Angel of the Mountain” left us forever on December 6 when he went to climb the peaks and did not return. Farewell, Charley!

An 8th place in the world ranking

At the end of the first year of "Pro Tour", Luxemburg found itself in the 8th place of the ranking by nation, with two of its cyclists, among the 25 best of the world: Frank Schleck No 13 and Kim Kitchen No 25. Some time ago, no one would have predicted such a feat for the sport of cycling in the Grand Duchy. And for our country, this most remarkable road season of 2005 was justly prolonged during the winter of 2005/2006, namely with the 8th place at the recent World Championships by Luxemburg’s best cycle-cross specialist, young hope, Jumpy Ducker. What is more, for several months now, the road season of 2006 has been treating us with some never-ending goose bumps thanks to the repeated feats of Frank Schlock, who is getting better and better, and has now earned a place among the world elite.

Kim Kirchen has been struggling to find his physical condition ever since joining the T-Mobile team, despite his 2nd place at the Grand Prix of Lugarno. Frank Schleck has scared away all the other claimants of his victory on every occasion! Being in excellent condition at the Paris-Nice where he finished 5th, Schleck took his red-white-blue vest of a Luxemburg champion for a ride over the hills of Loggia, and he was only overtaken on the Via Roma in San Reno. After a brief moment of respite over the classical race of Flanders and the cobblestones of the north, Frank Schleck continued with a mad week in the awesome classical race of the Ardennes to finally achieve the great victory that he had been pursuing for months. Although it was probably not at that particular race that he was expected to triumph, Frank Schleck went out of his way over the slopes of Caber to win his first great classical and professional race of Pro Tour - all on his own - before an immense crowd, with the Amsted Gold Race.

Recognized, if not feared, by the best ever since, Frank Schlock does not give up when the finish approaches. His 4th place at the Flèche Wallonne and his 7th place at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, each time finishing with the same time as the winner, shows well that our national champion cannot be easily overcome on such uneven terrains as the classical of Ardennes, which 52 years after Marcel Ernzer’s success in Liège, offered a new great cycling champion to our small country. Thanks to the 100 points gained since the beginning of the season by Schleck, who holds 4th place in the current Pro Tour Ranking, Luxemburg still occupies the 8th place of the ranking by country – far ahead of such reputed cycling nations as France and Russia. With the help of these results, the enthusiasm for this traditional and popular sport of an entire nation, as small as it may be, has been steadily growing. The Grand Duchy of Luxemburg is pinning its hopes for 2006 on the trio of Kirchen, Joachim and Schlecker.

Carlo Hastert

Petz Lahure

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