Friends: A mountain ridge rises steeply behind the small principality of Monaco and the harbor its built around, so the twenty teams gathered here for The Tour have only two viable choices for training rides if they wish to spare their legs of the steep, demanding mountain routes. They can either ride west along the coast towards Nice or east to Italy, just six miles away.
As I bicycled in from Italy yesterday morning about half the teams had chosen Italy as their training destination for the day. The route in that direction included several miles of Saturday's opening ten-mile time trial. It begins with a steep climb from the harbor for almost half of the course, rated as a category four climb, and then a descent back to its starting point.
One of the teams that passed me was Astana. As they passed I heard Levi Leipheimer ask, "Are you going to use a 21?" Then I heard the voice of Lance reply, "Probably." They were referring to the size of the largest ring on their cluster. The steeper the climb, the more teeth they would want. Twenty-one is more than usual. Lance and Levi are the only two Americans and native English speakers on the nine-man Tour roster. Chris Horner should have been among them but he was tragically left off the roster even though he has been a dominant force in the two tours he has ridden this year, the Tour of the Basque Country and the Giro.
Unfortunately, he crashed out of both of them, though that's not the reason he didn't make The Tour team. It was the usual--politics. One roster spot had to go to a Kasthatan rider, as a consortium of Kasthathan companies sponsors the team. There went one spot that Horner could have filled and another went to a Spanish rider. Since Albert Contador is the de facto team leader, he pressed to have an extra Spanish rider on the team, whose loyalty he couldn't question, even though Horner served him brilliantly and most faithfully in the Tour of the Basque Country. Contador feared Horner would work for Lance and not for him. Astana appears to be a team divided. Only Lance and Levi wore yellow wrist bands at the team presentation. It shouldn't be as ugly as the Lemond/Hinault rift in 1986, but it will be a factor.
When the Belgian Quick Step team passed me on my ride into Monaco I looked closely to see if Tom Boonen was among them. He recently tested positive for cocaine, just as he did last year. Tour officials wouldn't let him race last year and are trying to keep him out of this year's race as well, even though he is one of the most popular and best riders in the world and his use of cocaine was for recreational use, not to enhance his performance, at least on his bike. His team has taken the case to a Court of Sports Arbitration. I thought I saw Boonen in the Belgian national champion's jersey as the team passed, but I couldn't be sure, as he has several teammates who bear a resemblance to him, especially when they're all wearing helmets and riding at speed. I had to wait until the team presentations that night to discover he wasn't on the roster.
When the French AGR2 team passed, I overheard one of the riders comment, "Skippy." Skippy is a notorious Australian who has followed the Tour since 1998 by bike and car. He too has a white beard and is as skinny as I. When I saw Skippy later that day, hanging around, as he usually does, in the area where all twenty of the team mechanics are stationed working on bikes, just around the corner from the starting line, I told him about it. He said he'd have to talk to those AGR2 guys, as they well knew that I wasn't him, as he doesn't ride with panniers, and he's always decked out in Lycra, unlike me. He said they were just having some fun amongst themselves.
Skippy said he had his picture taken with Lance the night before at his hotel and Lance gave him a bunch of yellow wrist bands to pass out as he rides the course. The yellow wrist bands are a little more evident than they have been the past couple of years. George Hincapie is back wearing one, even though he is riding for the rival Columbia team. Prince Albert was wearing one at the team presentation last night too. He was a part of the festivities, giving a welcoming speech.
Three sets of grandstands with a seating capacity of 6,500, left over from May's Grand Prix auto race, facing out towards the harbor and the stage where the presentation took place, were packed. The roadway in front of the stands was also thronged with spectators getting an up close look at the caravan of sponsors as they passed and the team riders after their introduction, also heading out for a short spin. The ceremony went on for over two hours. The Astana team was the second to last of the twenty teams introduced, just before the new Cervelo team, the team last year's winner, Carlos Sastre, now rides for. When Lance and his teammates arrived there was a mad scramble of photographers as if there had been a shift in the earth.
Lance looked very relaxed. One or two riders per team were asked a question or two after their team introduction. Lance, of course, was one of them. He was just one of four to be interviewed in English-- Christian Vande Velde, Mark Cavendish and Cadel Evans were the others. Most were conducted in French, though there were also some in Italian, German and Spanish.
The interviewer commented to Lance that in the past he always arrived with supreme confidence. He wondered what he was feeling this year. Lance said that since it had been four years since he last raced The Tour he wasn't sure what to expect, but that he knew come Saturday he would have "a heck of a lot of nerves."
Lance has actually been back racing for nearly a year, ever since last fall's Leadville 100 mountain bike race in Colorado. Rather than saying that he's missed the last three Tours, he prefers to exaggerate it a bit, saying its been four years since he last raced The Tour. That's not entirely wrong, but still a slight clouding of the facts. He's not exactly looking for sympathy or building a case for not doing as well as he has in the past, though to a degree he is.
Lance was greeted with a resounding cheer beyond what anyone else received, though The Tour organization hasn't been hyping his return in the least. Contador didn't look so comfortable. He wore a look of nervous, flighty, edginess like the birds that he is so fond of. The opening time trial will be a quick revelation of how strong each is on a most demanding course, but it won't be until stage seven when the race reaches the Pyrenees that the true test of who is the strongest and the man to be supported by all the team will begin to become evident.
I had two prime objectives to take care of before The Race started--replacing my tires, as they had 3,500 miles on them, and sending off some books and unnecessary clothes to lighten my load. I expected it to be a snap to find my preferred Continental Touring tires in one of the many Italian bike shops well-stocked with quality gear as I proceeded along the Riviera before returning to France. So I put off my search until my last day in Italy.
I was drastically mistaken. I was told time after time that a shop only carried Michelin tires, as Continentals were too expensive, or if they did have Continentals, only in sizes thinner than the 700 X 28s I was looking for. I stopped at more than a dozen shops and was resigned to wait until I got to Monaco to hope to find them. But at nearly seven p.m., at the last town before France, I stopped at a shop only because it was on my side of the road. It was a rare shop without bikes out front nor expensive wheels hanging from the ceiling and accessories lining the walls. It was filled with mostly used bikes, many children's. Glancing in I could see that the proprietor was sitting on a chair reading a book, not busy at a work stand or dealing with customers as at every other shop I had stopped at.
"This is a waste of time," I thought, but I was in need of a slight rest and I am always curious to peek in on any bike shop. The guy spoke no English, but I had written down what I wanted on a piece of paper. Shockingly, he didn't scornfully shake his head and send me on my way. Rather he took my slip of paper and disappeared into the back of his shop. After several minutes he returned with exactly what I was looking for, a veritable miracle.
I had stumbled upon the Joe Hall of the Riviera. His back room and basement were packed with obscure parts. I could imagine him going home that night and telling his wife that he sold those Continental 28s that he bought three years ago that no one else wanted. After I replaced my tires, I asked if I could wash my hands. That's when I got to go back into his inner sanctum. He led me to a deep and wide sink, then grabbed a tube of hand cleaner and squeezed out a couple of dabs for each of my palms.
I was equally lucky with finding a small post office in Menton, the first French town across the border, with a friendly post mistress who didn't have many customers. She gave me a box to send five pounds worth of gear home in.
My next challenge when I arrived in Monaco was to find a place to camp. I noticed a cave tunneled into the cliff side of the time trial route that offered a potential refuge. The route was already lined with barricades, but there was a slight gap nearby that my bike and I could slip through. The cave lost its allure when I discovered it was filled with toilet tissue and empty beer bottles and other refuse. I asked at the tourist office if there were was a spot for people with RVs following The Tour to park for the night as there frequently is along The Tour route. There were two such locations about a mile from the harbor by the heliport. I went out there and found them not yet full. One even had a portable mobile installation with six showers. That couldn't have been better. I had asked Skippy if he had found a place to camp. He hadn't and was simply sleeping in his car.
This morning as I was biking to a grocery store, Skippy biked up from behind me and patted me on the back. When I looked over I noticed the Garmin team was with him. Skippy called out, "Hey Christian, meet one of your fellow countrymen." Oddly enough I had met him last December at a Chicago bicycle shop Christmas party.
"Hey, Christian," I said. "Remember me? You signed a course marker for me last Christmas."
"Oh yeah," he said, "You sure do get around."
"I meant to ask you back then if you had a course marker yourself."
"I'll grab one for you, if you'd like."
"That would be great," he said.
So now I have a mission for a potential podium winner. Christian finished fourth last year, moving up one spot after the Austrian Bernard Kohl lost his third place finish when one of his urine samples tested positive for EPO after The Tour was over. Christian winters in his hometown Chicago suburb of Lemont, so if I don't get a course marker to him before the race is over, I can deliver it to him back in Chicago, maybe in exchange for a Garmin water bottle, one of the few I don't have.
Hanging around the team mechanics, I noticed the mechanics tossing used water bottles to fans off the bikes the riders had ridden that day. The riders have such a germ-phobia, they don't reuse their bottles or even take the trouble to wash them. I unwittingly ended up with a Cofidis water bottle, one I already have. I'll save it for trading purposes or to toss to a fan along the road.
There were teams of Livestrong/Nike representatives walking around selling wrist bands and giving away packets of three yellow chalk sticks for scribbling on the road. That is a new novelty item.
Friday, today, is a rest day and tomorrow the three week Grand Boucle commences.