Riis defiant about the future of his team

A defiant Bjarne Riis tried to dampen speculation about the future of his Saxo Bank team, as he and his nine riders faced the press ahead of what could be their last Tour de France together in Rotterdam on Thursday.

Riis, flanked by Andy and Fränk Schleck, admitted that he has yet to secure a sponsor to replace Saxo Bank, who is withdrawing their backing at the end of the season. There was no hint that any announcement was imminent. “Everybody who works in business knows it takes patience and a lot of work,” said Riis. “I can tell you that we’re working on different scenarios, but I have to keep my cards tight to [my chest].”

“The day we have something to announce, we’ll announce it,” he continued. “But I believe this team will go on in the future - I’m not afraid.”

Riis acknowledged recent rumours, fuelled by the surprising departure of his directeur sportif, Kim Andersen, of a new Luxembourg-based team that would almost certainly be led by the Schleck brothers.

“Concerning the rumours about a new team and riders leaving,” said Riis, “I want to make it clear: we’re here to do the Tour and we won’t get into discussions during the Tour about any speculation or rumours.”

“We have talked internally in the team, and I’ve talked with Andy and Frank, and things are clear between us,” Riis continued. “We are here as a team to win the Tour. We’ve made an agreement not to talk about anything else during the next three weeks. The team is sharp and well prepared, and I think we have our strongest team ever at the Tour de France.”

Two team leaders

As last year, Saxo Bank will start the Tour with two nominated leaders, but without fear of the kind of internal squabbling that caused problems last year between Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador in the Astana team. Both Schleck brothers are capable of winning in Paris, said Riis, though many fancy that Frank, who was fifth last year, currently has the edge over younger brother Andy, who was second.

The elder Schleck, fresh from his win at the Tour de Suisse, confirmed that his major weakness, time trialling, has improved sufficiently for him to target the podium. “I’ve done special time trial work with Bobby [Julich, the squad’s time trial coach] and Fabian [Cancellera]. I’m never going to be Fabian [the world and Olympic time trial champion] but I am better than I was.”

Andy, meanwhile, sported bloody bruises on his hands, following his training crash last Saturday. “My hands were hurting a bit when we rode the pavé yesterday,” he said, “but so were my legs.”

Asked if he thought he could beat Contador, Andy said: “I’m not here to fight Contador; I’m here to win the Tour. Contador is the main favourite, but there are many others and I’m ready to fight anyone who wants to take my spot. I tasted last year what it was like to be on the podium in Paris, and I believe, with the team I have around me, that I’m ready.”

The third ace in the Saxo Bank pack is, of course, Cancellara. On Saturday he will go for his fourth Tour de France prologue and the first yellow jersey in the 2010 Tour de France. He admitted on Thursday that he had yet to see the course. “I’m seeing it tomorrow morning,” said the Swiss. “But it’s a nice distance, 8.9km, and the form is here - for the rest of the Tour, we’ll see. But for me [the prologue is] a race for yellow and nothing more.”

Tuesday’s third stage, over some of the pavé that Cancellara conquered on his way to winning Paris-Roubaix in April, could also suit him. Of the team’s reconnaissance ride on Wednesday, he said: “It was very funny.” But before revealing any secrets about the slightly-built Schleck brothers’ ability - or inability - over rough cobblestones, he added: “For people watching at home it will be an interesting stage.”

Riis added: “We’ve ridden the cobbles a couple of times now. For Fabian it’ll be fun, for others, not so much fun. It’ll be spectacular, no doubt about it – and dangerous. There’ll be a lot of crashes even before the cobblestones, because there will be a fight coming into them.”

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Richard Moore is a freelance journalist and author. His first book, In Search of Robert Millar (HarperSport), won Best Biography at the 2008 British Sports Book Awards. His second book, Heroes, Villains & Velodromes (HarperSport), was long-listed for the 2008 William Hill Sports Book of the Year.

He writes on sport, specialising in cycling, and is a regular contributor to Cyclingnews, the Guardian, skyports.com, the Scotsman and Procycling magazine.

He is also a former racing cyclist who represented Scotland at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and Great Britain at the 1998 Tour de Langkawi

His next book, Slaying the Badger: LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Ever Tour de France, will be published by Yellow Jersey in May 2011.

Another book, Sky’s the Limit: British Cycling’s Quest to Conquer the Tour de France, will also be published by HarperSport in June 2011.