With Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank - Sungard) set to be the pantomime villain of this year's Tour de France, his principal rival Andy Schleck was keen to encourage his own support from the roadsides when Leopard Trek met the press in Les Herbiers on Friday morning.
Contador was roundly jeered at the team presentation at Le Puy du Fou on Thursday by crowds upset at his participation in the race in spite of his positive test for clenbuterol in last year's Tour. A Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling on his case will not be delivered until August at the earliest.
"It wasn't nice for the team or for Alberto, but I haven't thought about it too much," Schleck said diplomatically of Contador's reception the previous afternoon. "For me, it's a motivation to have the public behind you, but the race is a different thing. Of course it's different for every rider. Some riders don't need it, but I like to feel the support of the public."
As has been the case since news of Contador's positive test first broke last September, Schleck was reluctant to discuss whether or not the Spaniard should be at the race, and he left it to his brother Fränk to spell out the party line: "If Alberto is here, it means he has the right to ride. We have to respect that."
While Andy Schleck will comfortably win the battle with Contador for the hearts and minds of the French public, it will be a considerably tougher task to match him on the road. Schleck has finished second to Contador in the past two Tours, but at 26 years of age, he insisted he is approaching the race with a different mindset.
"Last year is past, this year is now," Schleck said. "The previous years that I went to the Tour were different. Two years ago, I didn't go as leader. Last year I was still a young guy. But I can't go for the white jersey anymore, so I don't have any back-up."
Another difference between Schleck's preparation for the 2011 Tour is the set-up of his team. His switch from Saxo Bank to Leopard Trek was made public on the eve of last year's Tour, and he appeared to hint that life was rather more comfortable at his new squad than it had been under the stewardship of Bjarne Riis.
"Being in the Luxembourg team is a fantastic adventure and everything is just about perfect now," he said. "I won't say that I had excuses last year, but this year the team is 100 per cent better than ever before for Fränk and me."
A Tour for the climbers
With time trialling such an obvious Achilles heel in Schleck's armoury, the Luxembourger acknowledged that the mountainous route of the 2011 Tour was well-suited to his characteristics, although he admitted that the same can just as easily be be said of Contador.
"There are not too many time trials, so that suits me, but as Alberto showed at the Giro, he can manage when there are a lot of mountains," Schleck said. "If the route is made for me, then it's made for Alberto too."
Schleck's most recent time trial outing was a lacklustre showing in the concluding stage of the Tour de Suisse, but he was adamant that he could win the Tour by playing to his strengths rather than working to improve his weaknesses.
"If I win the Tour, it will be with my strengths, not my weaknesses," Schleck said. "If I want to win the Tour I need to train more towards my strengths in the climbs and I just need to lose less time in the time trials."
With the Tour's sole individual test coming on the penultimate day of the race, Schleck was confident that it would reward recovery as much as pure time trialling ability. "Having a time trial in the last week is very different to having it earlier in the Tour," he said.
His brother's keeper
The 2010 Tour was just four days old when Fränk Schleck was forced out of the race with a broken collarbone, and his younger brother still maintains that his absence in the mountains altered the dynamic of the race.
"It was a big disadvantage," Andy Schleck said. "It was a battle between Alberto and me, the others were riding for third place. I won't say that I'd have won the Tour, but it would have been a very different race."
For his part, Fränk Schleck outlined that he and his sibling are not building their Tour specifically around taking on Contador. However, he expressed his hope that the Spaniard might still be paying for his efforts at the Giro d'Italia.
"We're not here to beat Alberto, we're here to win the Tour," Fränk Schleck said. "It was a hard Giro. Not because of the racing, but because of all the kilometres, the climbs and the transfers in the night. The riders were spending two-three hours on buses after stages and that uses up a lot of energy. So I hope he's tired from the Giro."
Like his brother, Fränk Schleck has an acknowledged weakness against the watch but was hopeful that they could find a way of gaining time on Contador before the final time trial in Grenoble.
"We're not time trial specialists, so we need to get some time somewhere else in this Tour de France," he said. "We've been to the Alps and the Pyrenees to do reconnaissance of the key stages and we like this Tour de France. There's only one individual time trial and before that there's a team time trial that we're really looking forward to."
Although Andy Schleck did add one caveat before leaving the press centre. "We've got a lot of time trial specialists in the team, so Fränk and I will have to try to keep up with the group."
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