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Rating the Tour de France favorites, from W(iggins) to Z

Frank Schleck (LUX) ★★ and Chris Horner (USA) ★★★, RadioShack-Nissan

One of the peloton’s strongest teams on paper, it appeared early last week that RadioShack-Nissan was losing depth leading up to the Tour. With newly crowned 2010 Tour de France champion Andy Schleck out of the race with a fractured pelvis and Chris Horner missing from the team’s preliminary roster, Fränk Schleck was penciled in to share GC duties with Jakob Fuglsang and perhaps even Andreas Klöden.

Then team boss Johan Bruyneel — who last week experienced arguably the toughest five days of his career after the leaking of a letter alleging a 14-year doping conspiracy — abruptly reversed course Monday and chose Horner over Fuglsang for the team’s final Tour nine.

In the course of a very rocky week Horner went from spending July training and perhaps starting the Tour of Poland to filling the role of arguably the strongest GC rider in the RadioShack roster.

With the younger Schleck and Fuglsang out, and Klöden suffering through a challenging early season, the two-pronged GC attack of Horner and Schleck may set Bruyneel’s squad up better than in 2010, when RadioShack started four potential GC riders and only finished one, Levi Leipheimer.

Where his brother had the opportunity (and challenge) of riding solely for himself in the 2010 Tour, which Andy won retroactively in May following the disqualification of Alberto Contador, Fränk has not had that chance. The elder Schleck has ceded the spotlight to his younger brother since giving the yellow jersey to teammate Carlos Sastre at L’Alpe d’Huez in 2008.

Schleck’s difficulties in the early going of 2012 have been well documented. But second overall at the Tour de Suisse in June and the Tour of Luxembourg, behind Fuglsang, gave team owner Flavio Becca reason to push for his countryman to take command of RadioShack’s Tour squad.

Team director Kim Anderson, passed over by Bruyneel for the Tour, said this week that Schleck, who started the Giro d’Italia at the last minute and abandoned during stage 15, would likely aim more for stage wins than the overall.

“I have of course heard predictions that with his current form, that Fränk is a good bet to figure in the showdown of the victory, but to hope for that is, I think, total baloney,” said Anderson in an interview with Danish website Politiken.

Enter Horner.

The American returned to racing in March, after a pulmonary embolism suffered last August following his race-ending crash at the 2011 Tour. He took second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, then rode well through the Tour of the Basque Country after taking time off to rest an inflamed knee, but came up short in the Bakersfield time trial at the Amgen Tour of California. The American ultimately finished eighth overall after a bold, long-range attack on the Mount Baldy stage, where he finished sixth.

Horner, 40, finished ninth in the 2010 Tour, riding in service of Lance Armstrong until late into the final week of the race. If he is to contend for the GC in 2012, he’ll need to ride the TT of his life in stage 19… and make the absolute most of the La Toussuire and Peyragudes summit finishes. Can Horner drop Wiggins and Evans in the mountains? Yes. But he’ll need three-plus minutes on them to make it to Paris in yellow. Horner, Nibali and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) are the most explosive climbers able to produce a race-saving time trial. They’ll need to team up to beat back Evans and Wiggins in the mountains if they hope to wear yellow in the final weekend.

Schleck, on the other hand, can’t be counted on in the time trial. And having come off more than two weeks of racing at the Giro, it will be interesting to see how he works with Horner when the road tilts up. If he does in fact turn his focus to hunting stages, the Luxembourger could prove a valuable asset to Horner.

Fabian Cancellara, Jens Voigt and Yaroslav Popovich are names associated with controlling a race. They’ve delivered Armstrong, Contador and Carlos Sastre to Tour wins over the last decade and each made the final Tour roster. There is no team stronger than RadioShack as a whole, and without a sprinter to support — no Mark Cavendish (Sky), Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) or Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda) — whichever GC rider emerges at the Tour will have the team’s full backing.

Our bet is that it’s Horner.

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