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Tour far from finished for Schleck

By:
Daniel Benson
Published:
July 21, 2009, 1:43 BST,
Updated:
July 21, 2009, 2:54 BST
Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)

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"So tell me Andy, is your middle name attack?" asks a journalist from an American television network.

"No, it's Raymond," comes a rather cute reply. A broad grin then stretches across Schleck's face as he sits arms folded, ready for whatever the journalist can throw at him during his rest day media duties.

For a second the journalist is stunned... he ruffles through his notes, the camera still roles and Andy's grin keeps stretching.

It's a classic moment of this prodigious and talented climber catching someone off guard and it probably won't be the last time it happens at this year's Tour de France.

But just try telling Andy Schleck that the Tour de France is done and dusted and you'll see the grin vanish. "Contador has the yellow jersey but with that comes all the pressure. His shoulders will feel pretty heavy and we'll see how he handles that," says Schleck, who despite his years and baby brother image isn't afraid to play the hard mind games of professional sport.

Schleck points to this year's Paris-Nice as the textbook error when the media believed a Contador lead to be impregnable. At that race the Spaniard dominated the opening time trial and stamped his authority in the first mountain stages only to blow spectacularly during a fairly innocuous stage to Fayence, losing three minutes to Luis Leon Sanchez and the overall. "He was dominating and in just one day he lost everything. It might happen in the next few days, we don't know. Maybe he'll have a weak moment," he says.

It's a point that should be remembered, not just by those in the peloton but also those within the Tour's media circus who turned to one another and backslapped their prediction that Contador would win as soon as he attacked at Verbier. Perhaps an understandable mistake for those who witnessed Armstrong's seven-year monopoly of the yellow jersey.

However, Schleck, who sits 2:26 down on Contador is aware the race isn't over and that it's not just a two-horse race, with three riders sandwiched between him and Contador - Lance Armstrong, the former king; Bradley Wiggins the revelation; and Andreas Kloden, the silent assassin.

"Contador isn't the only problem I have right now. I have three other problems ahead of me," explains Schleck.

He will be buoyed by two favourable factors, however. Firstly, the Tour is entering its most critical stage, with two tough days in the Alps before the queen stage up to Mount Ventoux, on the penultimate day of the race. According to Schleck, Verbier, where he finished second to Contador, "was the first day of the Alps and I was up there but the next few days will be even better for me."

The second factor is that Schleck's older brother, Frank, sits in the top 10 and is in formidable form himself. On the key battleground of Verbier it was he who laid the foundation for both Contador and his younger brother's attacks and he'll look to shepherd and spearhead their onslaught on Contador again.

Does Andy believe that the race is down to just a handful of riders? "Sastre and Evans have lost a lot of time. Menchov has already quit in my eyes but if Evans wants to hit the podium he must attack from far out. He has showed that he can attack and I'm sure he'll try," he says.

"We've not seen a move from Carlos. I hear he was suffering at Verbier and then came back but if he wants to do something in this Tour he must do it tomorrow or the day after, otherwise it's finished for him."

The Luxembourger has been most impressed with Wiggins' performance, though. He's another surprise packet from Garmin-Slipstream after Christian Vande Velde's heroics to take fourth in last year's edition. "He's one of the surprises in this Tour. It's really hard to judge him because he's not done this before but he has showed that he has a big engine and now he's a Tour contender," says Schleck.

"There's still a big question mark as to how he'll go in the next few days. Ventoux will do some damage but he'll do some damage in the time trial."

To his credit, Schleck has improved his performance against the clock, not a difficult task if you've ever managed to see him ride a time trial. Over the winter he spent time working on this discipline with ex-teammate and former Olympic time trial medallist Bobby Julich. The pair worked tirelessly on the Schleck's ability to concentrate and the efforts have paid off with solid performances in both time trials in the Tour de Suisse and the opening Tour test in Monaco.

"Yes, I did a good time trial in Monaco," admits Schleck. "Many riders will be tired by the time we arrive in Annecy. I'm not afraid of the timetrial."

But what separates Schleck from the rest at this stage of the race is his brave rhetoric when it comes to risking everything for yellow in Paris. While most of his rivals are talking about consolidation, it doesn't even seem as though the word has crossed his mind. "I'm willing to risk the place I have. Maybe it won't work but I don't want to go get to Paris having not tried. I have worked so hard," he says.

Contador may be in yellow and he may be the favourite but Andy Raymond Schleck will be giving him some sleepless nights before Paris. This race isn't over.

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