'Improving' Andy Schleck eyes Tour de France victory

By Matt SlaterSports news reporter

Three-time Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck has dismissed suggestions he cannot win next year's race, saying he is tired of finishing second.

The route for 2012 features more time trials than usual and Schleck, 26, has often been slower against the clock than many of his main rivals.

But the Luxembourger is convinced he is improving as a time trialist.

"I am growing, I am getting stronger, I am more experienced. I don't want to finish second again," said Schleck.

"I have finished second three times in a row and I don't want to finish second again."

Schleck, who has also won three white jerseys for being the best young rider in the Tour, led this year's race going into the penultimate stage, a 42.5km time trial around Grenoble.

The Leopard-Trek team leader had a 53-second advantage over Cadel Evans but that was not enough to hold off the Australian's charge. Evans was two and a half minutes quicker on the day and sealed a first triumph in cycling's most prestigious race.

But Schleck, a superb climber, can take some comfort from Evans' win, as the 2011 champion had twice stood on the runner-up's step in Paris before finally going one step higher.

He can also point to Leopard-Trek's recent merger with RadioShack for evidence of his growing threat to the time-trial specialists as he will now be under the guidance of Johann Bruyneel, perhaps the most cunning team boss in the business.

Schleck said the Belgian was "the best" he could get to improve his chances of success and the pair had already started to make plans. Bruyneel was the brains behind all seven of Lance Armstrong's Tour wins and two of Alberto Contador's three.

The last of those Contador wins, the first without Bruyneel as his team director, came in the most controversial circumstances in 2010.

The Spaniard beat Schleck by only 39 seconds, the same amount of time he took from his rival when Schleck's chain fell off in the final section of a mountain stage. Contrary to the sport's unwritten code of not taking advantage of another's mechanical problems, Contador sped off, leaving Schleck trailing by that ultimately deciding margin.

More controversy was to follow after the race when it was revealed that Contador had failed a drugs test.

He has since been cleared of any intentional wrongdoing by his national federation but the sport's governing body and the World Anti-Doping Agency have appealed against that decision. The case will be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport next month.

A distracted and tired Contador (he rode, and won, the arduous Giro d'Italia in May) could only finish fifth this year but he will be concentrating all his efforts on reclaiming the yellow jersey next year.

Like Schleck, Contador would have preferred a few more mountain-top finishes but he is not overly alarmed by the route's almost 100km of relatively flat time trials.

"Yes, it is more of a time trialists' course, which is good for Cadel Evans but not so good for me," said Contador.

"But it's OK. There were 120km of time trials in 2007 and I did well. The race is the race, so we'll see."

Next year's race, the 99th Tour de France, starts in Liege on 30 June and finishes in Paris on 22 July.

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