“We remember always the image of Andy waiting for Fränk. You can’t always be looking for your brother when you want to win a race.” I’m talking to Cofidis manager Cédric Vasseur about siblings in cycling and it’s not long before the subject inevitably turns to the Schlecks.
In a decade riding on the same team, the brothers from Luxembourg were virtually inseparable. They followed a similar race programme, shared the same website and rode, it seems, as if tied at the hip – prompting some fans to refer to them, rather cruelly, as a single entity named Frändy.
The younger Schleck swats this familiar criticism away like a fly. Instead, when we speak, the de facto 2010 Tour winner describes his “great privilege” riding alongside an older brother throughout his career. “I wouldn’t have gone as far as I did without Frankie,” he vouches.
Standing either side of Cadel Evans in Paris in 2011, the Schlecks are the only brothers to grace the same Tour de France podium. “That was something unique in the history of cycling,” Schleck says with pride. “I don’t think it will be done again quickly.”
Dismissing Vasseur’s notion that the brothers held each other back, Schleck says it was a conscious decision to stick together. “It was more important than being leaders on different teams. Maybe we would have won more races and earned more money – but it was the right decision for us.”
My reasons for talking to Vasseur are simple: he, too, knows a thing or two about siblings in cycling. The Frenchman’s father, Alain, and uncle, Sylvain, rode together for the Bic team of Luis Ocaña in the ‘70s. And Vasseur himself fell out with his former manager Roger Legeay when trying to get his own brother, Loïc, to join Crédit Agricole in 1999.
Now manager at Cofidis, Vasseur’s squad this season includes the Italian brothers Elia and Attilio Viviani and Spaniards Jesús and José Herrada.
When the younger Herrada, Jesús, won stage six of the Vuelta a España last season, he dedicated the victory to his older brother who, 24 hours earlier, was reduced to tears after narrowly missing out on the race’s first summit finish.
“This is exactly the situation where one brother can give to a brother leader the eye of the tiger,” says Vasseur about the dynamic between los hermanos Herrada, describing José as “a kind of brain for his younger brother”. Since joining together from Movistar in 2018, their “fruitful association” has guided Jesús to two days in red and a maiden stage win in successive editions of La Vuelta.
“I’m really sure that what happened to José helped Jesús win the stage,” Vasseur says of the turn of events last August. “He thought about it a lot in the breakaway. I think he wanted to avenge the Herrada honour because we all thought José would win and it didn’t happen.”
In addition to the Herradas and Vivianis, today’s WorldTour boasts five more sets of brothers, including the Sagans (Peter and Juraj) and the Izagirres (Ion and Gorka), while the likes of Nairo Quintana (Dayer), Vincenzo Nibali (Antonio), Oliver Naesen (Lawrence) and Esteban Chaves (Brayan) all have younger brothers in the sport.
In the women’s peloton, sisters Hannah and Alice Barnes compete against fellow Brits Lucy and Grace Garner as well as Belgians Kelly, Jessy, Demmy and Lenny Druyts, while Annette Edmondson won the opening stage of the 2018 Tour Down Under days after her brother, Mitchelton-Scott’s Alex, became Australia’s national champion.
The sport may no longer be the working-class institution that it was, but its familial structure lives on – and having a sibling certainly seems worth it.
Chewing the fraternal fat with Schleck, I ask him to guess the percentage of Tour winners who also had a brother in the sport. He hesitates. “I believe it was a lot more than many people think,” he says. “Let’s say… four or five per cent?”
My calculations put the figure at exactly 33.3 per cent. Schleck laughs. “Really? Wow.” That a third of Tour champions share this common ground is all the more remarkable given that seven-time ‘winner’ Lance Armstrong was an only child, while of the four fabled five-time winners, only Miguel Induráin had a cycling brother.
“I remember that time-trial where Induráin slowed down to keep his brother within the time gap,” says Schleck, referring to the Lac de Madine test in the 1993 Tour where Miguel and Prudencio top-and-tailed the standings. “He played with his own GC to keep his brother in the race – it’s amazing to see there was something Induráin valued stronger than his yellow jersey.”
It’s not entirely true – Big Mig’s puncture that day was no ruse, even if it allowed Prudencio to make the time cut despite finishing a whopping 17 min 48 seconds down over 59 kilometres. Although physically similar, the Induráins were poles apart. As Gérard Rué, their French teammate at Banesto, once said: “They’re both decent, quiet, sympathetic people, alike in every way. Except, of course, on the bike.”
Despite their contrasting ability in the saddle, ‘Pruden’ played an invaluable role in Induráin’s career. Rumours of him signing autographs for his brother may have been fanciful, but during two Tours and three Giri, the duo formed what Induráin’s biographer Alasdair Fotheringham describes as a “team within a team” where Pruden’s support off the bike far outweighed his input as a decent domestique.
The role of lesser talented siblings is often overlooked. Take the example of the champion of champions. If Fausto Coppi was born to ride, then his younger brother Serse slumped out of the womb onto the top tube and was left clinging to the seat post for dear life. In 1949, the journalist Dino Buzzati described the “pitiable” Serse as “an ironic imitation” of his campionissimo brother.
When Serse eventually won something – a controversial tie in Paris-Roubaix that same year, largely thanks to Fausto’s remonstrations – it was described as “the biggest joy” of his illustrious brother’s career. Photos from the velodrome that day show a proud, beaming Fausto clasping an awkward, goofy figure clearly unused to the limelight.
Perhaps Fausto’s secret lay with Serse, Buzzati suggested. As a loyal gregario and soulmate, he was Fausto’s “lucky charm – the magic lamp without which Aladdin would have remained a beggar”. Deprived of this talisman, Buzzati claimed Fausto would lose some of his lustre. Two years later, this was cruelly put to the test when Serse died after a fall. Despite threatening to quit, Coppi continued racing, but a large part of him went with his brother.
With 80 per cent of humans having at least one sibling, it only follows that many pro cyclists have grown up alongside a significant other sharing the same physical attributes required to succeed.
Sibling relationships act as a natural laboratory for children to learn about the world, a testing ground for interactions outside the home and, theoretically, within the pro peloton. If being a sibling fosters both teamwork and competition, this is in essence what cycling is all about. Perhaps more than most sports, cycling is dictated by physical effort, hardship and months away from home – areas where the motivation and support derived from the presence of a ready-made training partner could aid perseverance, performance and progress.
In his book Outliers, the Canadian thinker Malcolm Gladwell explains that, rather than rising from nothing, successful people rely inordinately on parentage and patronage. Outliers, he says, are invariably beneficiaries of “hidden advantages, extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies”. Could having a fellow cyclist sibling be one of those utterly arbitrary advantages?
Professor Alison Pike, a specialist in child and family psychology at the University of Sussex, thinks so. She refers to the 10,000 hours concept which Gladwell champions: “It’s hard to get so much practice when you’re at home unless there’s support around you to get it. Having a sibling who is also interested is going to stack the deck in your favour.”
The notorious sibling trait of seeking familial recognition may, in turn, also explain why there are so many dynasties in cycling – from the Danguillaumes in France (with their 1,800 victories over three generations) to the Swinnertons in the UK. The prolific Bernadette, Margaret, Catherine and Frances between them won multiple track and road titles, while brothers Mark, Bernard and Paul all raced at a high level.
Can sibling science tell us anything reliable about the relationship between birth order and success? Received opinion dictates that older siblings are more likely to succeed, yet recent studies suggest that elite athletes tend to be later-born children, who are supposedly more athletic and greater risk-takers than their conservative elders.
Picture the flamboyant triple world champion Peter Sagan bunny-hopping across a roundabout to avoid a pile-up en route to victory, all while Juraj trundles home in the gruppetto – and this certainly rings true. But it’s also an oversimplification.
Sagan has always ridden on the same pro team as his older, less distinguished brother and speaks of the “special bond” he shares with Juraj. “It is important to know you aren’t alone and you have someone you can trust by your side, especially in the early years of your professional career,” he says.
If Sagan is so successful, he has not forgotten the key role Juraj played in introducing him to the sport in the first place. For his part, Juraj – 13 months Peter’s senior – cites the lifeline Peter gave him in 2010 by writing him into his renegotiated contract with Liquigas. Things have worked out: while Sagan Senior hasn’t exactly pulled up trees en route to three national road race titles, his peerless domestique duties in Qatar helped Sagan Junior to the second of his three world titles in 2016.
But it’s doubtful whether something as capricious as the order in which we left the womb has any real bearing. Coppi and Induráin were four years older than their brothers, while Andy Schleck was born five years after his mentor and “idol” Frank. (Incidentally, their older brother, Steve, is a politician.)
This is an abridged extract of an article that was originally published in Rouleur 20.1. The feature can be read in full on the Rouleur app, where all back issues are currently free to read. Download it via the Apple store or Google Play.