Course Preview

The 2009 Tour begins in the principality of Monaco with a time trial. The course climbs into the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes just outside the city before descending to a flat finish between high-rise hotels and the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean. At 15.5 kilometers, the stage is too long to be a prologue, and will offer an early indication of who has brought race-winning legs to this year’s Tour de France. The course includes one category 4 climb, the Côte de Beausoleil, literally “beautiful sun,” which reaches a maximum elevation of 205 meters. The second half of the course descends to a flat finish along the beach on the Boulevard Louis II near Port Hercule.

Fun fact! An average person could walk the length of Monaco in less than an hour. The country is surrounded on three sides by France, and lies not far from Sanremo on Italy’s Ligurian Coast. For portions of its history, Monaco has come under both French and Italian rule, and is currently the second smallest independent country in the world. Vatican City is the smallest, for those of you keeping score at home.

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Back to the bike race. The time trial starts and finishes near the Port Hercule on the Boulevard Louis II, named after the eleventh Prince of Monaco. The course begins climbing almost immediately, as the riders head into the rolling hills just outside the city. Traveling into French territory, the course gains 200 meters in the first 7.5 kilometers. The climb has an average gradient of 2.7% and is rated a category 4. The average is a tad misleading, as the climb is of the stair-stepping persuasion. It climbs in short steeper sections, then plateaus. Wash, rinse, repeat. The Côte de Beausoleil tops out at 200 meters and summits at 8 kilometers from the finish.

It’s all downhill from here. From the summit of the Côte de Beausoleil, the course descends following the Moyenne Corniche to the Avenue du President Kennedy. The elevation drops 150 meters in 4 kilometers, so it’s not a steep descent. The gradient averages 3.8%. From the Avenue du President Kennedy, there’s a slight turn to the Avenue Notre-Dame de Bon Voyage, then a hairpin to the Avenue Jean Jaurès.

Along the waterfront, the course turns flat and returns from French territory to Monaco. Inside 4 kilometers to go, there is a series of four 180 degree turns linking the Avenue de France with the Avenue de Princesse Grâce. The final 3 kilometers run straight to the finish on the Boulevard Louis II at Port Hercule.

It is not uncommon for wind to blow off the ocean in the afternoon in Monaco. Consequently, riders starting later could face a cross-head wind on the final kilometers on the Avenue de Princesse Grâce. The climb will more likely prove decisive than the wind, though, as Monaco is known for its mild weather, especially during the summer months.

Who to Watch

The course of this first stage has much in common with the short time trials that opened both Paris-Nice and the Critérium Dauphiné Libéré. In both of those races, the crono specialists found victory elusive and the podium flowers went to general classification riders. Alberto Contador won the opening time trial at Paris-Nice, while Cadel Evans won the first stage of the Critérium Dauphiné Libéré. This Tour stage closely resembles the first stage of the Dauphiné Libéré, which also began with a climb.

Still, the first stage and first yellow jersey of the Tour de France is a huge prize and the crono specialists will be peaked and ready to go big. Fabian Cancellara won the Olympic time trial in Beijing and is twice World Champion. In 2004, he won the Tour de France prologue in Liège by 2 seconds over Lance Armstrong. A true prologue, the 2004 stage covered just 6.1 kilometers. If anything, Cancellara will benefit from the longer distance this time around and could very well wear the first yellow jersey of the 2009 Tour de France. If I were a betting woman, which I’m not, but if I were, I’d take Cancellara to win this Monaco stage.

Of course, Cancellara is hardly the only rider with an ambition to win this prestigious opening stage. In 2005, David Zabriskie won the 19 kilometer first stage of the Tour de France. Like Cancellara the previous year, Zabriskie beat Lance Armstrong by 2 seconds. Truth, stranger than fiction. Zabriskie is the current U.S. National Champion in the time trial. He showed well in a few early season stage races this year, and rode the Giro d’Italia in preparation for this Tour de France. The last few months have been quiet in the results department and no doubt he has the Monaco stage circled on his calender. Zabriskie should rip on this course, though he will find Cancellara very difficult to best. Indeed, Zabriskie has placed behind Cancellara at Worlds in their last few meetings. The shorter distance may prove the wildcard, and there should be a close battle between the two specialists and former team-mates.

Other stage-chasers include: Gustav Larsson of Saxo Bank, who was second in the Olympic time trial last year, José Ivan Gutierrez of Caisse d’Épargne, a former Spanish National Champion in the time trial and second at Worlds in 2005, Bradley Wiggins of Garmin-Slipstream, a two-time Olympic Gold medalist in the pursuit and 4th in the 2007 Tour de France prologue, Stef Clement of Rabobank, 3rd at the 2007 World Championship in the crono, Thomas Lövkvist of Columbia-High Road, former Swedish National Champion in the time trial, and Benoît Vaugrenard of Français des Jeux, a former French National Champion in the crono and eighth in the opening stage of the Dauphiné Libéré.

General Classification Watch

Among the general classification riders, Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador should ride well here, especially after their strong performances at the opening time trial of the Critérium Dauphiné Libéré. Evans has typically shown better in the crono, but Contador did ride a scorcher at Paris-Nice. Watch for these two to continue their close rivalry from the Dauphiné Libéré, and to finish close on time in Monaco.

Contador’s team-mates Levi Leipheimer, Lance Armstrong, and Andreas Klöden should also ride well in this opening stage, setting up the possibility of multiple general classification threats from team Astana. That, or a bitter intra-team rivalry. In recent press comments, Contador has named both Leipheimer and Armstrong as key rivals in the race to wear yellow in Paris. Certainly, both Americans have placed well in past time trial stages, through both also suffered when the road turned up at this year’s Giro d’Italia. Will they bring better form to France? Contador must be hoping not, as surely he would prefer not to race his own team-mates for the overall classification. Astana looks likely to dominate the teams classification after this opening time trial, in any case.

The opening time trial should also offer Denis Menchov an opportunity to gain an early advantage. The 2009 Giro d’Italia winner thrives in the crono and should find this course to his liking. Likewise for Roman Kreuziger, the young Czech rider at Liquigas-Doimo, who last year won the Tour de Suisse and this year finished second to Cancellara in the opening 7 kilometer crono in Switzerland. Riding his first Tour de France, Kreuziger last year finished 13th in the general classification and no doubt hopes to better that result. He will share captain’s duties at Liquigas-Doimo with Vincenzo Nibali, who recently finished in the top ten at the Critérium Dauphiné Libéré. Franco Pellizotti, who placed third in this year’s Giro d’Italia, will also ride the Tour for Liquigas-Doimo, though he seems unlikely to figure high in this opening stage. Wait for the mountains to see the blonde Pellizotti at the front.

Fourth overall last year in the Tour, Christian Vandevelde has always ridden well against the watch, but the American suffered a crash at the Giro d’Italia, which has raised doubts about his chances of repeating his high general classification finish. Certainly, he did not show especially good form at the recent Tour de Suisse, but he may prove able to pull a good result over the short distance of this opening time trial. His chances of winning in Paris, though, do not look auspicious.

The climbers will be happy to see the road turn up in the first 7 kilometers, but the gradients are not steep enough to offer them much advantage. Carlos Sastre of Cervélo TestTeam will likely open his Tour campaign with a deficit to his rivals, though with only 15 kilometers to race, he should not fall too far behind. Last year’s Tour winner is never at his best during the first week, though the climb in this course will help his cause.

Over at Saxo Bank, Andy Schleck is also less brilliant against the watch than his rivals, but like Sastre, he will enjoy the opening climb. Ditto for Fränk Schleck who has no love for the time trial bike. Schleck the elder placed sixth in the general classification at the Tour last year, and starts this year’s race as co-captain with his brother Andy, who already won the monument Liège-Bastogne-Liège this season. In the long run, Andy Schleck will likely prove the better of the brothers in the grand tours and he has placed third in the general classification at the Giro d’Italia. Fränk Schleck has also suffered from a knee problem recently, and may not be at his best when the Tour begins in Monaco.

Overall, I would expect a close finish among the general classification riders on this opening stage. The distance is relatively short, and the opening climb offers a chance for the climbers to limit their losses. The Tour will not be won or lost in this first stage, but this time trial offers an opportunity for an on-form rider to gain an advantage over his rivals. It will also set an initial hierarchy among the teams and riders before the first round of mountain stages in the Pyrénées.

Gavia (updates to this preview will be made during the race and especially the day before the stage with current analysis)<-->