Andy Schleck can hardly have expected to have held his first press conference as a Tour de France winner on the car deck of a ship in the Gulf of Oman, but it was perhaps in keeping with the absurdity that has surrounded the protracted Alberto Contador case.
At a makeshift gathering on the sea transfer from Muscat to the start of stage 2 of the Tour of Oman on Wednesday, Schleck chose his words carefully while members of the press struggled to keep their feet around him.
Contador's positive test for clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour de France triggered a lengthy legal process that ended with the Court of Arbitration for Sport's decision to uphold appeals from the UCI and WADA to sanction the rider. Schleck, who finished second in Paris, now stands to replace Contador in the record books, even if the official Tour de France website continues to list the Spaniard as the 2010 champion for now. He told reporters that he was in no hurry to claim a belated yellow jersey.
"I had the yellow during that 2010 Tour for six days. I don't want to get the yellow jersey now," said Schleck. "For me being on the start line with number 1 on my back or 11 like I had the last three years, it doesn't change anything. It's just a back number."
Schleck's surrounds summed up the paradox of being named the winner of a race almost two years after the event. The hold of the HSC Hormuz is a long way from the Champs-Élysées.
"If he [Contador] is disqualified from the race, I was second so I would be the winner of the 2010 Tour. It won't be a victory for me, but I'll take the title," Schleck said.
"For me, maybe now I stand in the books as winner of that Tour, but if I win the Tour this year, that will still be my first victory."
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme was also on the ferry to Sur, but Schleck said that they had not discussed any retroactive award of a yellow jersey.
After a slight hesitation, Schleck admitted that he was surprised at the CAS verdict, but pointed out that he was in no position to assess its validity or otherwise. "Like I said, I had trust in the decision of CAS. I'm not a scientist, I didn't read the 4,000 pages," he said. "For sure it was a really strange case first of all, because the level of clenbuterol was so low and then it took so long. Finally a decision came out."
While Schleck insisted that the CAS verdict "didn't really change anything" for him, he acknowledged that the 2012 Tour de France will take on a different complexion in the absence of its perennial favourite.
"It makes it a totally different Tour. I won't say it makes it easier for me to win the Tour without him, because now there are a lot more riders who see their chance to make a podium, maybe do a top five or a podium in the Tour," Schleck said.
"You also have to consider that he always had a strong team around him and he went into the Tour it would also be up to his team to take charge in the race. Now it's a different situation so we have to see how the race develops. There are other riders who can attack earlier and maybe take time out of it. I don't think it makes the Tour easier."
Schleck said that he has not been in contact with Contador since the announcement of the verdict on February 6, although the pair spoke the previous day at the Trofeo Palma. "I talked to him the day before the verdict in Mallorca, but afterwards I didn't talk to him. I had no chance to see him."
Looking to 2012
Belated yellow jersey or not, Schleck's 2012 season is once again devoted to the pursuit of a first Tour de France triumph on the road. Though keen to keep that quest in perspective, the RadioShack-Nissan admitted that his programme would place even more emphasis on peaking in July than ever before.
"Maybe it's a little obsession but on the other hand, I won't be unhappy after if I never win the Tour. I will still maybe one day have a family and be a happy man afterwards," he said. "In one way it is an obsession, because I'm getting more and more focused on the Tour. The whole season is getting more and more about the Tour."
In recent years, Schleck's sole objectives outside the Tour have been the Ardennes classics, but now under the tutelage of Johan Bruyneel, he aims to follow the playbook of the divisive Lance Armstrong.
"Maybe sometimes I did a bit too much to prepare these races, like doing Pays Basque and going really deep. I was focusing on the Classics maybe too much, and I've got to change this year so I'm better at the Tour, especially at the start of the Tour," Schleck said. "If you look at the past, Lance Armstrong won the Tour seven times and you never saw him in any races other than the Tour."
After the Tour of Oman, Schleck will go on to tackle Paris-Nice and Critérium International, before choosing between the Circuit de la Sarthe and the Tour of the Basque Country. "I'll have to see how my shape is and whether I need more race kilometres or training kilometres."
A break follows the Ardennes Classics, and Schleck will not line up at the Tour of California, while he has yet to side between the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse for his final Tour tune-up.
The tweaks to his programme are courtesy of Bruyneel, the man who likes to tell his riders that they might as well win. Schleck is hopeful that their surprise union can pay dividends.
"Johan is really good because as a cyclist you've got to be strong in the legs but you've also got to be strong in the head and confident. And that's definitely one of his strong points," Schleck said. "But it's not just confidence, it's also to do the right decision at the right moment, in a race or in training. And that's something you've got to work on, something you can learn."
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