Andy Schleck’s Leopard Trek team insist the Luxemburger will emerge from a mitigated nine days of racing on the Tour of Switzerland primed for a far more crucial yellow-jersey battle next month.
Schleck has finished runner-up to Alberto Contador on the Tour de France the past two years and, despite insisting it could be a seven-way battle for the yellow jersey next month, he remains the Spaniard’s biggest rival.
A thrilling end to the nine-day race on Sunday saw American Levi Leipheimer, who was 1 minute, 59 seconds behind Italian Damiano Cunego before the final time trial over 32.1km, snatch overall victory from the Lampre all-rounder by just four seconds.
As Cunego licked his wounds, and Leiphimer celebrated a win that came largely thanks to his time-trial expertise, there were arguably more questions than answers about Schleck’s form ahead of the Tour de France from July 2 through July 25.
Older brother Frank was the defending champion, but he was virtually anonymous for most of the week while younger brother Andy showed only glimpses of the climbing skill that will go a long way in deciding the winner of this year’s yellow jersey.
Andy failed to win a stage and on stage six the Luxemburger was surprisingly left trailing early on the climb to the summit of Malbun in Liechtenstein where 24-year-old Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk took the win.
“In the first couple of mountain stages I felt much better,” admitted Schleck, who had already trailed in 1 minute, 39 seconds behind Colombia’s Juan Mauricio Soler on the first summit finish to Crans-Montana on stage two.
His pride apparently dented, the next day Schleck bounced back in style, battling to join the breakaway that put him in contention for a stage win and allowed him to pull on the king of the mountains’ green jersey.
In the end, Schleck was upstaged by Belgian Thomas De Gendt, who started the final 10km climb with a lead of 1 minute 30 seconds on the Luxemburger.
“Winning today’s stage was the goal, and I felt really good going full gas up the final climb,” said Schleck who, after finishing 35 seconds behind the unheralded Belgian, claimed he had put in some valuable training miles.
“Going all-out on that climb felt good. Yesterday was a bad day, and although I wasn’t worried, it was reassuring today to see that my form is there,” he said. “I still have two weeks to add to my fitness level and I had confirmation today that I am in a good spot in my final build-up to peak condition.”
Although the Tour de France starts in less than two weeks, for Schleck and Contador their first big rendez-vous is on July 14, the first of three straight days in the Pyrenees.
Traditionally, however, the third week of the tour — in this case the Alps, starting on July 20 — is the decider.
“There’s no panic,” added Schleck, who was beaten to the yellow jersey by only 39 seconds last year. “The first stage of the tour is still more than two weeks away and the real race will begin in four weeks in the mountains.”
While Contador spent last week reconnoitering key stages in the Alps, where he was stopped by French police for not having enough lights on his bike while riding through dark tunnels, Schleck was trying to convince observers he will be ready.
Whoever has had the right approach will only be known on July 25, although observers, such as HTC-Highroad sporting director Allan Peiper, suggest Schleck’s apparently relaxed approach could be a winner.
“Obviously, you have to come into the Tour de France with all guns firing, but I think it may come down to how much you still have left in the tank near the end of the race and not how much you’ve done before [it],” he said.
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