x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Looking good for Schleck

The Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck readily admits he got bored of seeing the back of Alberto Contador during cycling's premier event.

The Team Saxo Bank rider Andy Schleck, regarded as one of the finest climbers in the sport, is the favourite to win the Vuelta a Espana, which has five mountain-top finishes.
The Team Saxo Bank rider Andy Schleck, regarded as one of the finest climbers in the sport, is the favourite to win the Vuelta a Espana, which has five mountain-top finishes.

The Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck readily admits he got bored of seeing the back of Alberto Contador during cycling's premier event. But the 24-year-old rider from Luxembourg will have no such problem at the 64th Vuelta a Espana (Tour of Spain), which started in Assen in the Netherlands on Saturday, with the defending champion Contador preferring to take time out rather than defend the crown.

The race, which includes three days in the Netherlands, one in Belgium and finishes on September 20, should play into the hands of Schleck, arguably the world's finest climber behind Contador, with its five mountain-top finishes. And the younger of the two Schleck brothers said: "You want to have riders like Contador in the field as you want to know you're beating the best but part of me is happy he's not around at the Vuelta. It makes life easier and I should get a different view in front of me!"

Contador, along with Lance Armstrong, may be missing from the race but an impressive line-up still exists, including Schleck and brother Frank, Alejandro Valverde, Samuel Sanchez, Cadel Evans and Alexandre Vinokourov, returning after a two-year doping ban. On paper, Schleck's Saxo Bank team looks the strongest but, following the rigours of the Tour and a crash at the San Sebastian Classic at the start of the month, opinion is divided on his chances in the race, which finishes on September 20.

But he insisted that he still feels fresh despite a punishing season. "My back feels fine from the crash and there was never any worry that I'd miss the Vuelta because of it," said Schleck. "It's more than a month since the Tour finished [in July] and I've had some time away from the bike to relax and enough time to re-focus." The key to Schleck's race looks certain to be stages 12 to 14 where the peloton faces a hat-trick of mountain-top finishes, the prospect of which would get most of the field shuddering, but not Schleck.

"I look at those three days and know they will be hard but, with the team I have, I know I can pull out big chunks of time if I'm feeling good," he said. "But I really don't know what to expect from my body until we get there." Earlier parts of the route also seem to play into Schleck's hands, most notably stage four, the last 100 kilometres of which are a mirror image of the prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege race he won in some style back in April and a race that has happy memories for him.

"That was a hard race but I don't expect stage four to be so hard," he said. "I won't be going all-out in the same way but I'll definitely cast my mind back with the team to that one." Rumours are this will be Schleck's last grand tour with Saxo Bank, with speculation mounting he will be snapped up by Armstrong's new RadioShack team for 2010. The sticking point appears to be brother Frank, who Schleck Jr is adamant he wants to bring to the team but who Armstrong believes will be detrimental to the young rider's progress

Schleck himself is dismissive of all the speculation, pointing to the fact that he has a contract with SaxoBank for 2010 and that "Frank and I are happy at the team". The Schleck brothers are rarely separated on or off the bike. Andy describes Frank as "the best brother and friend you can have" and clearly relishes the opportunity to ride with his brother on the world's biggest races. "When Frank rides well, I tend to ride well," said Schleck Jr.

Unfortunately, controversy casts a shadow ahead of the race start with Vinokourov, a teammate of Armstrong and Contador at Astana, returning after a two-year exile for blood doping. And then there is race favourite Valverde, currently banned for two years by the Italian Olympic Committee, which forced him to miss the Tour de France (as the Tour passed into Italy), but still clear to ride by cycling authorities until an appeal is heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

But Schleck said: "Vinokourov has served his ban like other riders and has come back to ride clean so deserves that second chance. And as for Valverde, until it's shown he's done something wrong he's free to ride. But that's not for me to worry about, that's for the authorities. I just have to concentrate on racing, and winning." mmajendie@thenational.ae