Luxembourg, smaller than Rhode Island and with fewer residents than Milwaukee, is outperforming the U.S. at the Tour de France.
Brothers Andy and Frank Schleck are second and third overall after today’s 18th stage as they lead Leopard-Trek, the first squad based in the landlocked central European nation to enter cycling’s premier event. The top-ranked American is Garmin-Cervelo team’s Tom Danielson, who is ninth with three stages left.
Luxembourg was winless in 87 straight international soccer games from 1995 to 2007 and hasn’t had an Olympic gold medal since the 1952 Helsinki Games. The nation, which is known for banking, has a gross domestic product of 41.6 billion euros ($59.4 billion) and a population of 500,000, giving it the European Union’s highest GDP per capita, according to Eurostat. It’s the best place to manage private equity funds because of flexible tax rules, said a 2009 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP.
“At soccer, we’re not so good,” said Marc Olinger, a manager of a BNP Paribas SA bank branch who has taken all his annual leave to follow the three-week cycling race. “If we lose 2-0 against France, it’s a good result.”
Andy Schleck won today’s stage after attacking 37 miles from the finish, cutting more than 2 minutes from the lead of France’s Thomas Voeckler. The 26-year-old is now 15 seconds off the lead, while his 31-year-old brother is 1 minute, 8 seconds behind Voeckler. Danielson lost a minute to the leaders today, and is now 7 minutes, 8 seconds behind Voeckler.
Bordering the cycling nations of France and Belgium, Luxembourg has heritage in the sport. Charly Gaul of Luxembourg won the event in 1958 with a team sponsored by Italian coffee machine maker Faema SpA. The former slaughterhouse worker, who died in 2005, was dubbed the “Angel of the Mountains” by French newspapers for his ease riding steep climbs. The Schlecks’ father and grandfather were cyclists who competed at top-level events. Andy was runner-up the last two years, while Frank finished fifth in 2009.
Blonde Andy and dark-haired Frank come from the spa town of Mondorf and have a “boy-next-door” image, team manager Brian Nygaard said in an interview last month. Both still live in Luxembourg. They speak fluent French and German and tell jokes in English at news conferences. Andy was asked July 18 in Soyons, France, if he would lean on Frank and “sacrifice” his brother’s place in the standings for his own chance of victory. “It sounds like I’m going to throw him into a volcano,” Andy said.
The Schlecks are a marketing tool for the government. It wants to use them to lure tourists and alter the perception that Luxembourg is a place where “streets are paved with gold and everyone is driving luxury cars,” Jean-Claude Knebeler, the director of foreign trade at the Economy Ministry, said in a telephone interview last week.
The brothers were racing for the Danish Saxo Bank-Sungard team last year. Luxembourg sought out investors to set up a team and gained support from real-estate developer Flavio Becca, whose other interests include soccer and motorbike-racing teams, according to the Schlecks’ father Johnny. Enovos Luxembourg SA, a state-owned energy supplier, and national airline Luxair SA are among its sponsors. Typically, Tour de France teams have a budget of about $10 million.
Knebeler said he decided against paying 500,000 euros ($709,000) to put Luxembourg’s name on team jerseys, although “the idea is still there,” he said. For now, the tourism ministry is funding an advertising campaign at the Tour de France to promote the country, whose attractions include vineyards and rolling countryside.
“We want to avoid the view it’s some sort of little island where people sit around counting other people’s money,” Knebeler said.
Danielson, who was born and raised in East Lyme, Connecticut, is a former teammate of record seven-time champion Lance Armstrong, a Texan who retired for a second time after last year’s Tour. Jonathan Vaughters, the manager of Danielson’s Boulder, Colorado-based Garmin-Cervelo team, said he’s not surprised Luxembourg has two contenders.
“They have more of a cycling culture than we do in the U.S.,” Vaughters said.
To be sure, Leopard-Trek is a multi-national outfit and is backed by Waterloo, Wisconsin-based Trek Bicycle Corp. The Schlecks’ teammates come from Australia, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Australia, and the Netherlands, said team manager Nygaard, a Dane. The Leopard name comes from the animal, rather than a sponsor. Trek competes with Cervelo SA to sell high-end bikes.
“It’s not Luxembourg’s national team but it sometimes takes that shape because people really identify with it,” Nygaard said.
Frank said he’s “very proud” he’s representing a team with links to his country, although he sees it as more like a group of friends.
“I’ve done the Tour six times and the route, the weather and the accommodation hasn’t been as good this time but I’m having the most fun,” he said.
The tour this year, the 98th in history, has 21 stages that cover 3,430.5 kilometers (2,132 miles) over three weeks. Participants pedal for as long as five hours a day on a course that requires them to scale the Pyrenees and Alps mountain ranges. There are six mountain stages, including today’s, which climbed three mountains on a 125-mile ride between Italy and France.
Bank manager Olinger, 57, expects 5,000 compatriots -- 1 percent of the country’s population -- to be massed on the Alpe d’Huez mountain tomorrow to support the brothers in the potentially-crucial finish to stage 19.
“I have friends who have parked their caravan on the side of the road for a week to secure a good spot,” Olinger said.