ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE, Luxembourg — The man-scarves were kept packed away and the pre-show highlight reel still featured the riders in their respective Leopard-Trek and RadioShack jerseys from 2011, but there was a very different feel to the ambiance in Friday’s media rollout of the newly merged RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
The Schleck brothers took center-stage, with Fabian Cancellara, Andreas Kloden and Chris Horner rounding out the podium for what will be cycling’s newest super-team.
The team says it has ambitions in all the season’s major events, including a major classics push with Cancellara, but getting Andy Schleck to the top step in Paris is the only goal that counts.
“The Tour de France is our big ambition,” said team boss Johan Bruyneel. “Our strength is in our team. We are up against strong rivals, with (Cadel) Evans and Alberto (Contador), depending on the outcome of his case. If I look at their teams, we have a very big advantage.”
That was Bruyneel’s way of saying that his RNT crew will be loaded with firepower while Contador’s Saxo Bank squad will be thin and Evans’ BMC team might be racked with divided loyalties with the arrival of Thor Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert.
The Schleck brothers made history last year by becoming the first siblings to finish on the Tour podium, with Andy second and Frank third.
But everyone knows it’s time for Andy, now 26, to win a Tour, especially after finishing second three years in a row.
What could be standing in his way of the top spot of the podium are nearly 100km of individual time trials, something that tips the favor squarely toward Evans, Contador, Denis Menchov and even Bradley Wiggins.
Bruyneel insisted that people are looking at the Tour route through the wrong prism.
“We need to get away from this obsession that there are too many time trials for Andy. The Tour can be won or lost at any moment,” he said. “With the strength of our team, we can take more advantage in the mountains than ever before. And sometimes you cannot plan those moments, you just have to put the hammer down when the moment arrives.”
“Strength in numbers” was RadioShack’s mantra in the 2011 Tour, when it lined up with four co-captains, with Horner and Kloden joining Jani Brakjovic and Levi Leipheimer in leadership roles. The race was a disaster for all four, with Haimar Zubeldia ending up as the top-ranked Shack rider with 16th overall.
Horner believes that having the Schleck brothers bolstered by he and Kloden will only help the team’s overall chances of victory. Ideally, the team will work for Andy, but any one of the other riders could go on solo-fliers to put pressure on BMC and Saxo Bank to take up the chase.
The idea, of course, is to isolate Contador and Evans, and then have Andy Schleck attack them in the Tour’s mountain stages and open enough time to hang on in what’s nearly a century of TTs km’s.
“This team is built around helping Andy Schleck win the Tour,” Horner said. “If he has the form he had two years ago, he’ll win. If not, we’ll play some tactics to try to isolate (our rivals). We can make those guys weaker than they’ve ever been before the final climb. Cadel and Contador have weaker teams than us – that is not opinion, that is fact.”
Andy Schleck says he’s taking confidence from Bruyneel and others from the RadioShack side of the merger. Though he admits the TTs are his Achilles heel and he insists that he can still improve, he’s also smart enough to know he won’t win the Tour on the flats.
“I can improve in time trailing, and that means more work, more hours on the bike, perhaps improving my position,” he said. “I know I cannot win the Tour in the time trials, but I can lose in the time trials. I need to lose less time to my rivals. If I can get to where I lose 40 seconds in a 30km time trial, then I can win the Tour in the climbs.”
Bruyneel will certainly have a luxury in selection the Tour Nine come July. Behind the five leaders, such riders as Jens Voigt, Jakob Fuglsang, Maxime Monfort and Haimar Zubeldia will bring strength and experience across the board.
Frank Schleck says the two teams are coming together nicely and there’s already a building esprit de corps that will carry over into the early season races. The team met for a December get-together and then for another brief training camp ahead of going to Mallorca later this month.
“Both sides have a big advantage because we never had any problems ever on the road between us. We never had any issues with the RadioShack riders. We all know Klodi and Chris, we already got along well,” Schleck said. “It’s a great thing that two big teams are merging together. We will be even stronger.”
Andy Schleck admitted he’s tired of being second and believes he’ll have even better chances with the increased depth of the team.
“I’ve been three times second, I want to know what it feels like to stand on the top step of the podium,” he said. “I want to win the Tour. I don’t want to go back and try to win the Giro. If I never win the Tour, maybe I can go back to the Giro and Vuelta. The goal stays the same, at least for the next few years.”
Whether he can take that final step up remains to be seen. Contador and Evans might have a few things to say about that, along with 100km of racing against the clock.
It’s barely January, but all eyes are already on France. At least they were Friday in Luxembourg.