The residents of Monaco are used to this sort of invasion on an annual basis, when the Formula 1 grand prix arrives in town.
Now the Tour de France is here, the team vehicles have taken over the harbour and the banks of apartment blocks planted up the hillside seem to crane for a better look. The best seat in the house, though, is on the deck of the enormous luxury liner that moved in overnight.
There isn’t the howl and roar of a racing car to be heard but the Tour has arrived, there is no doubt about that.
As Friday morning gave way to the afternoon, some of the riders headed out on their low-profile bikes to ride the hilly and difficult course for tomorrow’s time trial. Monaco is a labyrinthine place, with roads all converging on one another and side streets appearing from nowhere. There appears to be a local code of conduct on the road that only the residents know. To drive among the swerving cars and diving scooters is hair-raising enough, to ride a bike amid the traffic must get the adrenaline running.
The Norwegian Thor Hushovd had a brush with a car, scraping his shoulder, but fortunately not seriously. The riders will be relieved when the race actually starts.
A RICH PLAYGROUND
Like in Paris in 2003 and London in 2007, the Tour embraced its monied surroundings, proving that the sport is as comfortable in this luxury tax haven as among the farm fields and hamlets of the countryside.
There is a studied air of indifference among the locals, but the wealth is obvious. As Charly Wegelius remarked on his Twitter feed: “Even the seagulls in Monaco seem to have more cash than me.”
On Thursday night, the team presentation kicked off the Tour. The air was heavy, not just with anticipation, but also a steamy, oppressive heat that suggested a storm was on the way. Fortunately the clouds held. Was that a sign for this year’s race?
Who else but Daniel Mangeas should open proceedings? His voice is an institution on the Tour, dominating the start and finish of every stage, and his tone, manner and quirks are as instantly familiar to anyone who’s visited the Tour as Peter Alliss is to a British golf fan.
So what if he used notes to reel off every rider’s best results. Even newcomers to the Tour are introduced with a rally of their notable achievements, even if that is only a fifth place in the GP Villers-Cotterets, or second on a stage of the Tour of Picardie. To Mangeas, every rider is part of the story, and that is exactly as it should be.
BBox Bouygues Telecom were first on stage, followed by the monied Katusha outfit. Someone should have a word about their take on the national champion jerseys, though. Filippo Pozzato’s Italian champion’s jersey stretches tradition too far. It’s predominantly white, with the Moscow skyline in green, white and red. Whatever happened to that striking, traditional, and unbeatable Italian tricolore?
Euskaltel-Euskadi arrived, minus Samuel Sanchez, the Olympic champion who was seventh in last year’s Tour. Sanchez spends more resting than racing these days, and you wonder whether Igor Anton and Mikel Astarloza can compensate for the absence of a rider who should be top six material.
The first team to be eagerly awaited was Quick Step. Allan Davis took the place of Tom Boonen, but, it seems, that will be the extent of the Australian’s participation in the Tour. By Friday morning, L’Equipe was reporting that Boonen would be allowed to start.
Mark Cavendish and Mark Cavendish’s sunglasses were next up. The fake abs on their jersey seem to have shrunk with the addition of a new co-sponsor, HTC. The jersey also has a flash of green, a hint of what’s to come for Cavendish, perhaps?
The man with the task of asking the questions on the stage was referencing the Giro d’Italia and Columbia’s dominance when he put this beauty to Cavendish. “So, which of your riders are not going to win a stage?”
Silence. Cavendish left the question hanging, looked from side to side for dramatic effect, then came up with the most diplomatic answer. “One of these two here,” he said, turning to the team’s managers Allan Peiper and Brian Holm, who should perhaps be known as Mr White and Mr Blond.
BROWN SHORTS? OH DEAR
AG2R-La Mondiale’s new brown shorts were so awful they almost got up and walked up onto the stage of their own accord. The jersey doesn’t look too bad in isolation, but get nine of them together and it feels like something is wrong with your eyes. Perhaps that’s their tactic, they’re going to ride together in the peloton and make everyone else dizzy.
With Alejandro Valverde enjoying a ‘holiday’, 2006 champion Oscar Pereiro was Caisse d’Epargne’s main man. Then came Liquigas, who had brought smally cuddly dinosaur toys with them to throw into the crowd. That, ladies and gentleman, is the child-friendly face of bottled gas and bottle gas accessories. Their rider Roman Kreuziger is presumably labouring under the impression that he’s the Czech version of Bono, if his sunglasses were anything to go by. What Bernard Hinault, who famously broke his very expensive Ray Bans in a crash caused, he said, by Phil Anderson, made of them is anyone’s guess. As ever, Hinault clapped politely, giving nothing away.
As the rest of the teams came and went the expectation in the crowd rose. Cadel Evans showed off his Canyon in a smart Australian paintjob, while Mangeas gave the most bizarre pronunciation of ‘Wegelius’ we’ve ever heard.
THE SECOND COMING
Astana arrived. Lance Armstrong’s first official engagement with the Tour de France since 2005. He looked remarkably fit. Carved almost. Gone were the soft edges visible at the Giro d’Italia.
The cheers were loud. Louder than for any rider introduced to the crowd. Even Hinault – a man Armstrong recently called a ‘wanker’ on his Twitter feed – clapped politely.
The cheers for Alberto Contador were equally loud, but the questions were polite and the answers bland. Everyone was thoroughly looking forward to the race and they’d all be working for the team.
Johan Bruyneel looked stern, and given the statements by Alexandre Vinokourov earlier in the day, it’s no wonder. The Kazakh is coming back, he said, and would be taking what he considers his rightful place in the Astana team.
“It’ll be him, or me,” is a gist of Vino’s words. Bruyneel or Vinokourov? What a choice. There will, surely, be only one winner there. Bruyneel and Armstrong’s plans for Team Livestrong will be back on the agenda.
Cérvelo were last up. It was unfortunate for the defending champion, Carlos Sastre that as soon as Astana left the stage, significant numbers in the crowd began to drift away.
Perhaps they were simply dazzled by the brightness of Cérvelo’s new white strip, which must surely have featured in a washing powder advert. Yes, there have been white kits before – Française des Jeux have worn one for years – but this is WHITE. Presumably Cérvelo are confident of a hot, dry Tour, because there’s no way it’ll look good in the rain.
With that, the rest of the crowd dispersed, to pay over the odds for a mineral water, beer or ice cream and watch the people.
Tour de France 2009 – Cycling Weekly’s full coverage
Mark Cavendish wears the new Columbia-HTC kit, by Andy Jones
Carlos Sastre and the Cervelo Test Team show off their new white kit
Sastre is aiming towards overall victory
Astana team boss Johan Bruyneel looks at his star riders Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong (right)
Britain’s Bradley Wiggins will be aiming for success in the opening Monaco time trial on Saturday
Tom Boonen shakes Quick Step team-mate Allan Davis’s hand – the French courts will decide on which one of them will be riding in the Tour