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Page last updated at 08:23 GMT, Monday, 26 July 2010 09:23 UK

Can Schleck ever beat Contador?

Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador

By Alex Murray

For the second year running, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck occupy the top two steps of the Tour de France podium, clear of all other rivals by a significant margin but with Spaniard Contador again on the top step after winning overall for the third time in four years.

"They have great duels [like] Nadal-Federer in tennis," said Tour director Christian Prudhomme.

Much has been made of the friendly nature of the rivalry between the two, both by the riders and the media.

And that rivalry became far closer this year as the two battled for supremacy throughout an epic race, Contador finally triumphing by 39 seconds - the third-closest ever.

But if Schleck hopes to beat Contador next year, then he will need to develop a ruthless streak and leave their friendship at the start line, according to two-time Tour winner Laurent Fignon.

"Contador manipulated Schleck by playing with him on a psychological level," Fignon told French sports newspaper L'Equipe.

"He compensated for his bad spells with great mental strength and by bigging up their friendship. Over the course of the Tour, he succeeded in making his rival switch off.

Perfessor Albertus Emeritus Lion V

"The competition has to be merciless, especially once the race is started. Nothing should then stop it... When you're rivals, you can't like each other, you mustn't like each other. It's not healthy."

Both riders are still young enough for the rivalry to span a further decade.

At 25, Schleck is still maturing as a rider, but he will now never achieve Contador's rare 2007 double of winning both the white jersey for best young rider and the yellow jersey as overall winner in the same year.

The realisation that Schleck can genuinely challenge should see him return more determined next year.

Contador's third win, at the age of 27, places him among a truly select bunch of riders.

Only Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx can also claim to have been victorious in all three Grand Tours (France, Italy, Spain) at least once, as well as in three Tours de France.

Tactically Schleck has been more astute this year but his riding is still prone to costly errors such as failing to mark Contador's wheel closely on the climb to Mende on stage 12, or the poor gear selection that led to the dropped chain on Port de Bales on stage 15.

The 39 seconds he lost there is the same as Contador's margin of victory and will become the subject of fan debate for years to come after the Spaniard mercilessly exploited Schleck's misfortune.

Contador's form in this year's race was not the same as in 2009 when he was able to ride away from Schleck in the mountains.

Schleck is improving year on year and Contador is a shadow of the rider he was in 2007 and 2009

William Fotheringham

"I believe that Andy was at the same level as he was last year, but it is me that wasn't at the same level," he said.

However it is arguable that Contador's rhythm was hindered by the course of antibiotics he was on a few days before the race started, which the Spaniard believes affected his form in the first week of the Tour.

Schleck has grown in self belief, but he still lacks the ability to fully exploit weakness in his opponent, in the way that Contador clinically chose his moments to narrow the gap between them.

"It was summed up by the first mountain stage finish at Morzine, where he had Contador on the ropes but never put the knife in, the finish at Ax where he didn't go for it and the finish at the Tourmalet where he rode tempo," says William Fotheringham, author of Roule Britannia, a history of Britons on the Tour de France.

"He was unlucky on the day his chain came off but he was given plenty of other opportunities and didn't use them."

Next season it is widely assumed that the Andy and his brother Frank will leave Saxo Bank and ride together on a Luxembourg-based team built around them.

Frank crashed out on the cobbles of stage three this year, a loss keenly felt by the younger Schleck.

"I know what I missed this Tour," said Andy Schleck. "I definitely know it was my brother, and I know with him it would have been a different scenario in the climbs. I'll be back here 10 more times and I can stand up there in yellow."

Brothers Andy and Frank Schleck
Andy missed his brother, Frank, who crashed out early on

Andy's determination to secure Frank a podium place in the 2009 race affected his focus on attacking Contador. However, were it not for Frank's ability to attack and tire Contador, Andy could have been more exposed in the mountains.

Andy Schleck took another step on in his development on Saturday. Previously considered a poor time-trialist, he finished just 31 seconds behind Contador, less than a third of the time predicted by his own team boss, Bjarne Riis, earlier that week.

"Schleck is improving year on year and Contador is a shadow of the rider he was in 2007 and 2009," added Fotheringham.

"The final time trial indicates that next year the race could be just as close, but for the duel to develop, Schleck needs to get some fire in his belly, lose some respect for Contador and really want to win. This year, he looked resigned to second place."

The emotion which poured out of Contador after the final time trial suggests that Schleck's second place was closer than he would have liked.

Perhaps next season he will re-discover the form of 2009 and once again use it to put distance between himself and Schleck in the mountains.

Perhaps no longer having the comfort of the white jersey competition in 2011 will focus his mind better on beating the only rider who can stand between him and wearing yellow on the Champs Elysées.

What is certain is that cycling fans have many years ahead in which to enjoy the prospect of these two fantastically talented riders challenging each other in the greatest show on wheels.

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see also
Contador seals third Tour victory
25 Jul 10 |  Cycling
Contador relief over Tour victory
25 Jul 10 |  Cycling
Contador 'sorry' for Schleck slip
20 Jul 10 |  Cycling
Contador exploits Schleck mishap
19 Jul 10 |  Cycling
Tour de France in pictures
25 Jul 10 |  Cycling

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