The Friday immediately before the Tour kick-off. Twenty-four little hours before the start of arguably the toughest physical and sporting challenge anyone will undertake. It’s always a weird sort of a day. It’s a major opportunity for the press to get some final insights, maybe fire a question or two that gets a less guarded answer. The PR folk want the press to show in numbers, for everything to go perfectly. The riders just want it over.
Leopard-Trek were first on stage today, in their natty street threads, although Fabian Cancellara looked like he was about to whip his top off to reveal a shiny blue bodysuit with a giant ‘F’ emblazoned across the chest.
The Fabster, Frank and Andy get most of the action today, once the howling feedback from the monitors has been sorted out. It started out funny as the first journo’s question came in; it ended up painful.
Andy Schleck offers no prior excuses today. He’s too old to go for the white jersey anymore, so his target has to be yellow alone. There’s no back-up plan, but: “Everything is just perfect on this team.”
Andy is pretty honest for a GC favorite, speaking about the final 42.5 km TT around Grenoble. “We worked a lot on the time trial since the end of the Tour last year … I can’t win the Tour with my weaknesses. I hope to develop more on the climbs … I believe the Tour is that hard that it is going to be decided before that day.”
For big brother Frank, there’s more of an admission that his days as a genuine Tour contender are numbered. Quizzed about that same time trial, he just laid it out there: “I’m not going to be Fabian Cancellara, I’m never going to get to that level. I’m not going to be a TT specialist.”
One question came in about Andy’s physical capabilities. Frank reckons his little brother has a big engine, a really, really big engine, and bigged him up before a wise crack about Andy’s engine being switched on. Probably not something that Chris Rock will want to rip off …
Frank had some sporting words about Leopard-Trek’s biggest rival: “We’re not here to beat Alberto Contador, we’re here to win the Tour de France.”
Cancellara has a different job on his hands this first week. No prologue and possibly not an optimal stage one finish, so it’ll be 100% into the team time trial on Sunday.
At the far end of either line, forgotten until the Q & A session broke up, Joost Posthuma concentrated hard on not spontaneously vanishing, while Jakob Fuglsang relied on Maxime Monfort to translate any little funnies from French.
Eventually, the word was given for the riders’ dreaded one-on-ones; in Andy’s case it was more like one hundred-to-one as he simply vanished into a scrum of cameras.
HTC-Highroad are on next, and it’s a slightly different take on proceedings.
The legendary Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are on hand to MC the show and the star – if slick shades are the denominating feature – is definitely Mark Cavendish, all determined jawline and cool aviator glasses.
The team all come across well, and Mark Renshaw is the guy who really seems on the ball as a media commentator. Sharp, direct and engaging, there are no wasted words. Is he happy to hide his sprinting light under a bushel for the team? “That’s the level of the Tour de France. You can’t come with individual ambitions.” Bernie Eisel is another interviewer’s dream and raises a few laughs along the way. Tomorrow, he’ll get serious.
Their conference is being webcast and questions come in thick-and-fast, with most of the riders getting at least one each to answer; very democratic.
It’s not quite the mayhem of Leopard-Trek once the press are invited forward, and a few of the team are left in relative peace to have a laugh. Peter Velits, Tejay van Garderen, Danny Pate and Bernie Eisel briefly escape the attention that Cav draws.
I grabbed a few minutes with the Slovakian Vuelta podium finisher Velits to find out how he views the Tour.
He’s in a good frame of mind, even if he is missing his twin brother, Martin, at the race: “We did it last year in the Vuelta. He was helping me not only on the bike, but off the bike … I was a little bit sad when he stayed at home because I knew it would be really good to be here with him.”
Danny Pate is happy to pose for an impromptu portrait once Valerie politely asks him to smile. At 32, Pate has seen and done all this, and he knows the next three weeks are about the team outcome rather than his own dreams.
Outside, Rudy Project glasses are running through some shade options with Tony Martin; it’s like a quiet day at the kitchen showroom, all patter from both parties, and rather endearing. Erik Zabel arrives on the scene, gets a big welcome and a … whisper it … new pair of shades. Gratuit.
Rabobank are up next and they look like they’ve just had a business seminar about body language. Lars Boom leads Robert Gesink across the car park like he’s about to get into a boxing ring. The funny thing is, once inside, quite a few of the team just shrink into their tops, the collar pulled up over the chin to stay safe.
There are high jinks a-plenty round the back of the hall, where only a handful of photographers and fans have dared to venture. Carlos Barredo has just done his stint with Rabobank, and rolls by his old team’s car to get his tyres pumped.
Wilfried Peeters grabs a QuickStep jersey and tried to bundle the Spaniard into it with comical effect. Barredo squeals and giggles, only partly because he’s a pro who knows his sponsors don’t want their name hidden by another’s logos!
There’s a great atmosphere between the old friends, and QuickStep are happy to lend a track pump, but leave Barredo to put in the muscle work himself!
Niki Terpstra is out and about with his allen keys adjusting his saddle, and then whips out a measuring tape, just to make extra sure things are where they should be.
Jerome Pineau is first to emerge from the (briefly impounded) QuickStep team bus, for which DS Peeters gives his balding pate an affectionate rub. Tom Boonen is still in demand with the fans and happily rattles of a couple of autographs before loping into the conference hall.
As the big Belgian gets his share of questions, Chavanel switches off for a while and lark around with Pineau.
Time to split. We’ve a drive over to La Roche-sur-Yon to see what Omega Pharma-Lotto are up to. Outside, the mechanics are tuning up the machines for tomorrow’s battle up the Mont des Alouettes, where they could be in with a chance of the yellow jersey. This machine is the one which carries those hopes.
It’s a much more relaxed affair, and even although the crowd swells before show time it’s nothing like the feeding frenzy of Leopard-Trek, HTC-Highroad, or Saxobank-Sungard yesterday. Journalistic rivalries are quietened as there’s a polite passing of voice recorders down to the front of the room.
Phillipe Gilbert, the squad’s superman/winning machine has very little of consequence to answer ahead of stage one. His manager Marc Sergeant is straight to the point: “Philippe Gilbert did a superb season until now. I think he’s ready for it.”. Jurgen Van Den Broek is quietly confident; Andre Greipel continues to be one of the ‘must photograph’ faces of the peloton. Moody, laughing, serious, hacked-off – it just seems to work on the camera.
There are some rather nifty looking snacks on offer for the press, all prepared by chef Mitch Coldenhoff of Kookeiland. He’s been with the team for about five years, and works the big races with Omega Pharma-Lotto: the Tour, the Vuelta, Paris-Nice, the Criterium du Dauphine.
The rest of the time, he’s part of a collective of chefs who write cookery books and appear on TV shows! Out of a population of six million in Flanders, they’ve sold three million books! Does he enjoy the cycling milieu?
“It’s always been great, but especially this year with the success the team has had.”
It must be the food then?
“Yeah, must be!”
OP-L directeur sportif Marc Wauters is calmly leafing through a team brochure. How does it feel to be a DS on the Tour and not a rider? “Not that different! I did thirteen as a rider, and now I’m driving, it’s not so bad. For everyone else the Tour is a huge deal, but for the directeurs, it’s just like another race.”
Back into the sunlight, all the OP-L riders are getting individual decals – Sieberg gets a cool red and white lighthouse. Sebastian Lang gets a neat cartoon version of himself. Should be good for morale over the next three weeks, no?
That’s a taster of what press conference day is like, and I haven’t even shown you which team bus took close parking to its logical conclusion by flattening a traffic bollard, or which team had its mechanics chuck the toys out of the pram in public: “You think you can do it better? Then do it yourself!”
The race will be on the road tomorrow, and so will we.