By Gregor Brown in Cuneo, Italy
After an evening spent enjoying a glass or two of good wine with his CSC team-mates, a relaxed Fränk Schleck was basking in the glory of Tour de France leader as he met with the press on Monday morning in Cuneo. With the Tour's two decisive mountain stages looming large, the 28 year-old was eager to enjoy the moment and not be drawn too much into the battles that lie ahead.
"I had a lot of messages and phone calls, but I could not answer them all," revealed Schleck. "I received 106 messages, it was a nice feeling getting all the congratulations - it meant a lot to me."
The lanky Luxemburger knows that his current margin of eight seconds over Cadel Evans could be wiped out in an instant by the Australian's superior time trialling abilities, but after Sunday's performance feels he has the strength to gain more time in the coming days.
"Yesterday I saw that Evans was just following me," said Schleck. "I saw that he was suffering. I had Bjarne Riis and Kim Anderson in the radio and they told me he was really suffering. I knew that if I was going to take the second I should take it on the last kilometres."
By the time an exhausted Evans crossed the line in Prato Nevoso, that gap was up to nine seconds. Enough to give Schleck the lead, but just barely. The race leader has no less than five riders within a 49 seconds of him. Of those five, Schleck picked out former team-mate Christian Vande Velde as the other rider he's most concerned about besides Evans.
"Christian looks very good, very thin - he looks sharp," noted Schleck. "He is a great guy and also a friend. After he was pulling on Hautacam and I did not get the jersey by the one second, he sent me a message and it said 'I owe you a couple of beers'. Then he was one of the first ones to write me a message after I took the yellow jersey.
"If he comes to the final time trial, going really fast, he can end up on the podium too. Maybe he might take the yellow to Paris. I never have seen him so strong in the climbs. I wish him good luck, but we will fight against him. Drop him? Yes, of course. And there are others to drop as well."
Tuesday's stage to Jausiers, despite featuring two beyond category climbs including the 2802-metre Col de la Bonette-Restefond, does not end in a mountain-top finish. Instead, the following day's stage to Alpe d'Huez is likely to seriously re-shape the general classification before Saturday's final time trial. And while CSC will naturally try to make its numerical advantage count on the climbs, Schleck refused to be drawn on the team's exact plans.
"We have not set a plan yet," he said. "We are taking it day by day - I want to enjoy the day today."
His younger brother, Andy, revealed slightly more. "We have to try to do something," said the younger Schleck brother. "He has to try to get the maximum he can and then try to do a good time trial.
"He has the yellow jersey in the third week and having that is not just based on luck or being in the right escape - if you get it you are strong. I think he can keep it, at least until the time trial."
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