We walked out of the utterly baking Monegasque summer sun into the blissful air-conditioned sanctuary of the Grimaldi Forum – the Grimaldis are the ultimate high-rollin’ family in this super-wealthy principality, heading up the royal line of Monaco.
The thumb say it all. SaxoBank is ready.
Just in time for the Team SaxoBank press conference to kick off – only you couldn’t see any of the riders. When the media scrum eventually subsided and the questions started we had (left to right, to give you and idea): Chris Anker Sorensen looking a bit shy/bored, Gustav Larsson looking chilled out, Frank Schleck amiably beaming, Stuey O’Grady looking completely unlike someone who’s starting Tour # 13!
Bjarne himself holding court in the middle flanked by Fabian Cancellara. Then a still fresh-faced Andy Schleck, Kurt-Asle Arvesen and Nicki Sorensen offering some Nordic calm, and Jens Voigt, loitering with comedic effect at the end of the line.
Bjarne Riis was in no mood for talking his guys down: “We are one of the strongest (teams) in this Tour, I’m very proud to be leading them.
“We have trained hard over several months – these guys have prepared a lot to be in the best possible condition … they’re ready to fight and to perform their very best and bring some results. These nine guys here are very strong, good on all terrain, and we will be dangerous.”
“The big goal on Saturday is to take the yellow jersey with Fabian. The Tour is very stressful, it costs a lot of energy. You must stay alert every single day and take any opportunity that comes.”
On the big rivals, Bjarne reckoned Astana “ … have a fantastic team, a beautiful team. To be honest, I think it’s more in the press that they have ‘conflicts.’” (i.e. the press whips things up.) Then, hinting at the way things work at SaxoBank, he went on to say that if there were problems at Astana they’d have put the riders through some programs to sort things out.
When it came time to raise the spectre of the biggest rival of all – Mr. Lance Armstrong – Bjarne said: “Lance is obviously not (too old to win) … to be honest, I think it’s great that he’s back. He has a lot of courage and I respect him for that.
“To beat the young guys like Frank and Andy, Contador on the climbs … I don’t believe it, I just don’t believe it.”
Questions opened up to the riders, and young Andy Schleck was first up responding to a query about his previous Grand Tours, but a Freudian slip of classic proportions showed he’s feeling super-confident, when he said “I was good over the whole three years … I mean three weeks!!”
“Frank and I are ready … the main contenders will be team Astana with maybe three leaders – Contador, Leipheimer and, of course, Armstrong.”
Fabian Cancellara was also in chilled, knowing he’s ready, in good shape. On how long he hoped to keep the yellow jersey if he wins the prologue on Saturday: “Three weeks would be the dream!”
He also said that when you’re in good form, like he is after smashing the opposition in the Tour de Suisse, it’s just not necessary to see the whole prologue course – you just go out and ride it into submission.
Jens Voigt had been lurking at the end of the table, but he gave a cracking dissection of how the three weeks would likely pan out, ending with: “I think its going to be really thrilling to see the Mont Ventoux and the first riders maybe separated by only 30 or 40 seconds.”
It was on the contentious two-stage radio ban, that Jens brought the conference to a raucous standstill of laughter and applause. Bjarne had already done the serious bit about the sponsors paying a lot of money to see their team try to win the Tour and the risks of having a radio ban – if someone were to lose the race because of an incident where there was no radio to help out “ … it would be bad, a scandal.”
Jens just cut the argument to the core: “Why don’t we have two days without helmets (laughter) … or two days where they cut the brake cables just to make it interesting!” (Huge laughter from all, and applause!)
You can’t get a more salient point better made – now will the authorities listen? Isn’t it good to be back in the swing of the Tour and know that Jens is still around making sense like he races – no nonsense.
• Keep it dialed to PEZ, as we are on the ground in Monaco – and at the Team Presentation as this story goes to post. Lots more to come!