July 3rd, 2009
07:32 AM ET

In search of Lance

MONACO - Driving up to the Fairmont Monte Carlo, formerly the Loews Hotel, the signs were good.

Astana team cars and vans littered the front entrance which could surely mean only one thing. Lance Armstrong was not only in town for the start of the Tour de France, but staying in the same hotel as yours truly. 
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/03/art.alberto.jpg caption="Contador getting in some final practice before the opening Monaco time-trial."]

Surely it would only be a matter of time before our paths crossed, before I could flash my CNN pass and grab a quick impromptu interview or take a quick photo.  Well we live in hope.

The hotel is full of devoted Armstrong fans, all sporting the Livestrong brand clothing of their hero and all believing he can deliver a miraculous eighth Tour victory after four years away from the race.

The fans certainly have to be devoted because with beer at $10 and the same for an ice cream, a few days in the south of France for the first couple of stages will leave a big hole in the bank balance.

Hopes of a chance encounter faded as the conceirge dropped a strong hint that just maybe the seven-time  champion was staying somewhere else, away from the hullabaloo. 

Which left the open road, because most of the riders were completing their final preparations by riding the 15.5 km course for the opening individual time trial which begins the Tour on Saturday in the principality.

It will be an important indicator of who is in form for the three-week race and unusually for such a stage being held over a lumpy course as it winds its way up from the harbor at Monte Carlo.

Fractions of seconds lost on corners could prove crucial and Armstrong with his legendary attention to detail will surely be having one last look.

And yes that is the case, but standing in the square in front of the famous Monte Carlo Casino it is very easy to miss a group of fast-moving Astana team cyclists whizzing down in single file.

My partner responds to my plaintive cry  "there's Lance" by capturing the rear ends of the elite of world cycling.  Nice try, but hardly a world exclusive.

Resigned to never capturing that individual moment, away from the press conferences or the official presentation of the teams it left only a quick recee of the start and finish area in Monte Carlo's signature harbor, resplendent with the yachts of the super-rich.

The road up from the harbor rises slightly before heading under the tunnel which is part of the course for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix. 

Mark Cavendish, the sprint sensation from Team Columbia who is set to bag a host of stage wins and is favorite for the green jersey, suddenly powers past, hunched on his tri-bars.

Then up behind pedals the now-retired Erik Zabel, many times a winner of the green jersey which Cavendish so covets. 

Ken, an ardent cycling fan from England, his wrists chock a block full of Livestrong wrist bands, no prizes for guessing who he's supporting, shouts out his name in recognition and asks for an autograph. Erik pedals on.

But this looks promising, more promising still as I spot an Astana jersey in the distance and heading our way.

More instructions to a very patient partner who fires off a volley of camera clicks. 

The cyclist moves closer. It's not Lance.

But it is Alberto Contador, the Astana team leader and favorite for the yellow jersey. He rides effortlessly by. 

Ken does not seem overly impressed by our close encounter with the man most likely to put one past his hero and this time does not bother to ask for an autograph.

Having to leave to drive north to England just a few hours later (we never did get to see Lance close up,) but Alberto will do, and he's my idea of the race winner.

Will Lance prove me wrong? Well we live in hope.

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