The hot news from Day -1 of the Tour de France is that Kim Kirchen isn't going to win.
Over the next three weeks, some riders' hopes will frazzle on slopes of Pyrenean climbs, others will see their ambitions cascading down Alpine valleys, but Grim Kim's have already ended at a pre-race press conference. To be precise, they ended the moment the Team Columbia rider clasped the hand of Italian photographer known universally as "il Mostro" and gave it a good, hearty, Luxemburgish squeeze.
"il Mostro" translates as "The Monster". "Il Mostro" also happens to look like a Monster. Think Frankenstein wielding a Nikon. I'll say no more, except that "Il Mostro" is also said to bear a curse. Italian riders refuse to touch him in the days leading up to a major race.
Two years ago, in the build-up to the World Championship Road Race in Salzburg, Filippo Pozzato was feeling as fit and pleased with himself as anyone can when they look like a cross between a Top Gun-era Kelly McGillis and a poodle. But then calamity struck. Pozzato felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around and spied "Il Mostro". And he let out a yelp. Or rather a little scream. Pozzato knew that his dreams of a rainbow jersey had just gone puff.
So Grim Kim won't win Le Tour. His Team Columbia manager Bob Stapleton told me last night that he gave Kirchen an outside chance of taking the first yellow jersey on the Cote de Cadoudal on Saturday, but now he won't even manage that. The former Française des Jeux rider Carlos Da Cruz is working for L'Equipe and radio station RTL on the Tour, and he told me on Friday morning that Kirchen was never likely to figure on the 1.7km, 6.2% Cadoudal. "The last two hundred metres are flat, anyway - I'd be banking on someone like Freire, Steegmans or Ciolek," Da Cruz ventured.
For what it's worth, I reckon he might be onto something with Steegmans...
The ambiance in the press room over the past 24 hours has been noticeably subdued. Almost eerie, I'd say. Usually we'd assume it was the quiet before an almighty doping storm, but this year we can't even be sure of that. In the car on the way to the press room in Brest's Palais des Expostions this morning, the conversation turned to one rider hotly tipped for overall victory in Paris on July 27th, and a colleague who shall remain nameless chipped in with "Do you think he might actually be clean?"
His tone was one of incredulity. The reporter in question almost couldn't believe what he was saying...and yet, like us, he appeared to genuinely believe its implications.
Of course no-one should relax just yet. Numerous conversations I've had over the past 24 hours indicate that the testing programme undertaken by the French government anti-doping agency (AFLD) in the weeks leading up to this race has been anything but watertight. Yesterday I asked Garmin Chipotle manager Jonathan Vaughters how many AFLD tests his riders had faced before arriving in Brest earlier this week, and, with admirable frankness, Vaughters admitted that the answer was "zero". Stapleton said that Kirchen had certainly been tested, but said that the AFLD's protocol for locating riders was "twenty years behind" the ADAMS system employed by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI).
This morning in Brest, the AFLD appeared to be making up for lost time - almost literally - by submitting six teams (the other fourteen were tested yesterday) to a barrage of tests which ate a two-hour chunk out of their morning. The riders were furious. Two hours to take a few blood and urine samples? On the eve of the Tour?
Oh, well, it could have been worse: they could have been shaking hands with "il Mostro"...