Missing brother adds to Schleck's Tour woes

Tour de France podium finisher Frank Schleck believes the absence of his brother, as well as doubts on his race fitness, have virtually ended his podium hopes this year.

RadioShack team leader Schleck finished third overall in 2011, one step below younger brother Andy, the 2010 champion, and two below Australia's Cadel Evans.

But his chances of making the podium on the Champs Elysees on July 22 are being kept in check by a route which largely favours BMC leader Evans and British challenger Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky.

Compounding Schleck's existing woes, on both a personal and professional level, is the absence of younger sibling Andy, who pulled out two weeks ago after suffering injuries at the Criterium du Dauphine race.

"I've always raced with Andy by my side. It won't be the same without him," Schleck told reporters here Thursday, two days before the race kicks off with a 6.4 km prologue in Liege.

"Andy and I race better when we're together. We understand each other, we motivate each other -- not just for racing, for training as well.

"We'll always be better racing together."

The two long time trials on stages nine (41.5 km) and 19 (53.5 km) are expected to give Evans and Wiggins, both accomplished all-rounders, a huge boost over their rivals.

When the route was announced in October, it automatically dropped Schleck, who is mediocre in the race against the clock, down the list of contenders.

He affirmed Thursday: "If we're totally honest, the 100 km of time trials this year doesn't favour me.

"And there are only three summit finishes. It's really going to be hard making up the time lost in the time trials."

But Schleck's biggest concern appears to be maintaining his race form until July 22, after a spring and early summer of competing at the Giro d'Italia, which had not been on his race programme, the Tour of Luxembourg and the Tour of Switzerland.

"My preparation for the Tour hasn't been the best this year, at least it hasn't been as I'd hoped.

"I'm in good shape but the Tour of Switzerland finished only 10 days ago and we'll have to see whether I can maintain that kind of form for the next three weeks," said Schleck.

"I'm still confident and of course you start every race to try and win it, but we'll be taking it stage by stage."

Schleck's only hope, he admits, is joining with several other outsiders to take the race to Evans and Wiggins on some of the early mountain stages which, incidentally, also feature some of the race's steepest ever climbs.

"Of course there's a lot of guys like me in the peloton, riders who will be looking for a chance to grab a few seconds here and there," Schleck told AFP.

"It's going to be interesting to see how those guys are racing. Maybe there's going to be a union. I don't know.

"Definitely, strong teams like Sky and BMC have to race from the beginning and take charge from the start of the race.

"So this is a Tour you have to race aggressively. One day you might have an opportunity early on (in a stage), you can't wait for the last climb."

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