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Tour de France

Oh, brother: Schleck tandem comes up short in race for 2011 Tour de France title

Andy and Fränk Schleck will stand on the final podium in Paris on Sunday, the first brothers to do so — but they won't occupy the top two steps, as they had hoped.

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The Schleck brothers embrace at the end of Saturday's time trial, knowing that the Tour was lost. Photo: AFP

PARIS, France (VN) — The Schleck brothers will stand together on the final podium in Paris on Sunday, the first brothers to do so, but they won’t be on the top two steps as they had hoped.

When Andy Schleck stood at the start ramp for his TT showdown against Cadel Evans, he was quietly optimistic that he could keep the yellow jersey he had won just the previous day in the Alps.

Less than an hour later, his Tour de France dreams came crumbling down, as he gave up more than two and a half minutes and the yellow jersey.

“I am not a loser. Next year I will come back to try to win the Tour again. Now we only have to congratulate Cadel Evans, who rode the time trial of his life and who is a worthy winner,” Schleck said graciously after the stage. “Of course, I am disappointed, but I am still only 26 and there are still plenty of chances ahead of me. I am going to be on the podium with my brother, Fränk, and with a victory at Galibier in an incredible manner. We can hold our heads high.”

Come Sunday, Andy Schleck will become the first rider in Tour history to finish second three years in a row. And with the milestone will come mutterings about what he and his team could have — and should have — done differently.

Many will question whether the two-pronged brother attack is the most effective use of Leopard-Trek’s firepower. The team insisted throughout the 2011 Tour that Fränk and Andy Schleck had equal chances to win the Tour. And the scenario seemed to be playing out, with the brothers hanging near the front of the leader board during the entire race.

Fränk became defensive when VeloNews asked about it earlier in the Tour, but many insiders said that the team should have thrown its weight behind the stronger legs of Andy right from the beginning of the race.

“We’ve answered that question a long time ago. There will never be any kind of war between us or any sort of problems,” Fränk Schleck said. “If we ever get to that point, we would stop racing our bikes then.”

Family ties are what count for the Schlecks, who still live in their childhood hometown in southern Luxembourg. Rather than hit the lucrative post-Tour criterium circuit last year, the brothers chose to go fishing together.

This year, the pressure was on to deliver the big win after their high-profile exit from Bjarne Riis’s Saxo Bank camp to form their own, Luxembourg-backed Leopard-Trek team. Tour officials did their part and gave the Schlecks an ideal course, one laden with big mountains and short on time trial kilometers.

The Schlecks couldn’t get the job done in the Pyrénées, however, and hit the Alps with the pressure of having to open up huge time on Evans.

Andy Schleck went on a heroic breakaway over the Col d’Izoard in stage 18, but Evans saved his Tour chances by pulling back the GC group all alone, cutting nearly three minutes out of his rival’s advantage by the time they crossed the line atop the Galibier.

“We rode the perfect tactic,” Leopard-Trek sport director Kim Andersen said at the summit. “We will have to attack again tomorrow.”

But L’Alpe d’Huez played out poorly for the Schlecks, who were hoping to repeat a similar ploy used by Carlos Sastre to ride away from Evans and win the 2008 Tour.

The plan was to send Fränk Schleck on the attack early on the Alpe and put Evans in a similar predicament. But when Alberto Contador attacked from the base of the Telegraphe in a daring, long-distance raid, it seemed to knock the Schlecks off balance. Contador drew out Andy Schleck but dropped his elder brother. When Contador attacked again early at the base of the Alpe to try to win the stage, Andy Schleck stayed with Evans and Fränk Schleck couldn’t respond.

Contador’s attacks didn’t succeed in delivering him a face-saving stage win or a podium shot, but it did seem to wear out the Schlecks, who couldn’t afford to let the dangerous Contador get too far away.

On a day when the Schlecks needed to take at least another minute on Evans to have some realistic hope of winning, Contador’s aggression neutralized, in part, the Schlecks’ last hope.

In an intimate scene behind the winner’s podium at L’Alpe d’Huez, Fränk Schleck collapsed in the arms of his wife and new baby, his emotions pouring out after a lost opportunity.

The Schlecks will have to wait another year to try to win the Tour. In the meantime, they are likely to face a lot of the same questions — questions that Evans won’t have to answer anymore.