By Jean-François Quénet in Monaco
Some of the world's top Grand Tour riders converged on Monaco the day after Paris-Nice, taking the opportunity to ride the 15 kilometre time trial course that will open the Tour de France on July 4. In addition to riders, Tour television producer Jean-Maurice Ooghe came to plan spots for cameras and lights in the tunnel sections of the harbour-side route, made famous by the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix.
An Astana team car with Alberto Contador and directeur sportif Alain Gallopin drove to the port where start and finish will take place. Contador's visit follows that by Lance Armstrong, who studied the course last week as he prepares for Milano-Sanremo.
Cyclingnews joined Saxo Bank's team car for a lap of the 15 kilometres course, which followed a group of their riders. Those from the Danish squad included Jens Voigt, Fränk Schleck, Gustav Larsson, Chris Anker Sørensen and Matt Goss.
Newly retired Bradley McGee, who is now a directeur sportif in the Danish team and has been living in Monaco for a few years, showed the course to head-coach Kim Andersen. Bobby Julich, another former CSC rider turned team technical adviser, observed the course closely during the exercise he enjoyed so much during his racing days.
The Monaco course begins with an uphill start towards the casino. After 2.5 kilometres of climbing there is a false flat section for recovery before heading uphill again, where it enters French soil over what is known as the moyenne cornice. Schleck, whose younger brother Andy couldn't join the squad due to his participation at Tirreno-Adriatico, was amazed by how difficult the course is.
"This is hard climbing," said Schleck at the top of the hill. From up there, the view over the Mediterranean is incredible.
"It's not a surprise – this course has been advised by my good friend Vincent Wathelet who is a TV producer, he has done it for the best promotion of Monaco via its most spectacular scenery," McGee said.
On the descent back into Monaco, Julich appreciated the lack of dangerous corners. "This is a perfect mix of uphill, downhill and technical course," said the American.
The Saxo Bank staff enjoyed the course's flattish end, near the tennis courts of the Monaco Country club, and the tunnels leading back to the port. They imagined Fabian Cancellara putting the hammer down on the third part of the route.
"With the form he'll have in July, Cancellara will be able to win it," McGee predicted. "It will be a big battle with hundreds of thousands of spectators watching."
The big question remains: does the Monaco time trial suit Contador or Armstrong? There's little question in McGee's mind. "Contador at his best will ride faster than Armstrong," he said.
The result of this 15-km stage will have an impact on the scenario for the three week long Tour de France like never before.