Former Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis stood defiant Thursday amid rumors that his two top contenders for the yellow jersey are set to quit his Saxo Bank team.
Luxembourg brothers Andy and Frank Schleck, second and fifth respectively in 2009, are expected to be among the big challengers to reigning champion and race favorite Alberto Contador of Spain.
However their pre-race harmony has been upset by reports the Schlecks will quit the team for a new Luxembourg-based outfit to be run by Riis’s former assistant Kim Andersen. On publication of the rumors, Riis and Andersen parted ways last month.
Flanked by his entire team Thursday, Riis moved to close the chapter preferring instead to focus on the claim that his team will “be among the strongest, if not the strongest” at the race.
“I think we are very well prepared and we come here with big ambitions,” said Riis, the 1996 yellow jersey winner who has since admitted to using the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin) during his career.
“We have two main riders who we believe can go far in this Tour and they have a strong team right behind them. We are here to win.”
Saxo Bank, formerly known as CSC, has been key players in the peloton in recent years thanks to the performances of Swiss Fabian Cancellara, the Schlecks, Australian Stuart O’Grady and former rider Carlos Sastre.
However, with the team’s sponsorship contract set to expire in December 2010, its future is up in the air.
While Riis claims a new sponsor will be found, he wants the team to get behind the Schlecks ─ for what could be their final fling together in the world’s biggest bike race.
“We won’t speculate on any of these rumors over the next three weeks. We are here as one team, to win the Tour de France together,” said Riis, who won the Tour as a team manager thanks to Carlos Sastre in 2008.
“I think we are one of the strongest, if not the strongest, teams here. The team is sharp, and well prepared.”
Contador, the winner in 2007 and 2009 who also won the Tours of Italy and Spain in 2008, is ranked the overall favorite just ahead of Andy Schleck and seven-time champion Lance Armstrong.
However a handful of other contenders ─ like Cadel Evans, Bradley Wiggins, Sastre, Andreas Klöden, Michael Rogers and Denis Menchov ─ means the race looks more open than ever.
Andy Schleck finished over four minutes off Contador’s pace last year, the bulk of which he lost in the mountains where the Spaniard is most at ease.
And despite the fact he is still recovering from a nasty bout of road rash following a training ride crash last week, the younger Luxembourger said he feels ready to take on all challengers.
“I’m not here to fight Contador. I’m here to win the Tour,” said Schleck. “There are many others (challengers) and I am ready to fight all of them.
“I got a taste of the podium last year, and hopefully I will be able to go one step higher.”