As the peloton races towards its first rendezvous with the climbs of the Alps in the 101st Tour de France, Australian fans will be paying close attention to one man in particular. Richie Porte is the personification of Sky’s “B-plan”. For the opening four stages, he was the super-domestique for the defending champion but then came a crash too many. The only rider to abandon the Tour in the treacherous fifth stage to Arenberg happened to be Chris Froome. He wouldn’t make it to the pavé and we know the rest of the story.
Gone but not forgotten, Froome is now watching the Tour from afar. Like many Australians, he’s cheering for Porte. The Tasmanian moved into the top 10 on the day the “A-plan” ended. From eighth place on GC after stage five, he has been able to work his way up to second overall after 2,354km of racing in his fourth Tour de France.
With his two stage wins and long stint in the yellow jersey, Vincenzo Nibali remains the favourite for the title but there is optimism at Sky.
One of the mountain massifs of the 2014 race is behind the peloton but two remain. And Porte believes that the efforts of Nibali’s Astana team in the opening half of the race may stand him in good stead for the second half.
“I know that Vincenzo is in a great position,” he told RIDE before stage 12 yesterday. But, according to Porte, that doesn’t mean the Italian is now going to ride defensively. “I still think that he wants to take more time on me than what he has.”
As this feature is being written the blue of Astana’s jerseys can be seen powering away at the head of the peloton. The finish at Chamrousse is still 100km away and they are swapping off with Katusha. Clearly there are jerseys to defend: yellow for Nibali and the polka-dotted one for Joaquim Rodriguez.
We are yet to see the black-and-blue line-up come to the fore. But that’s likely to happen before the nasty 18km climb that concludes stage 13. There’s fight still in the legs of Porte even if he’s playing it coy for the moment; he’s not yet saying that the yellow jersey is within reach even if others on his team believe it’s possible for Sky to win a third successive title.
“For me, I want the podium – that’s my big fight,” insisted Richie in Bourg-en-Bresse yesterday. “And there are guys who are close around there too. So, if Vincenzo is going to attack then we’ll see what happens because he can put himself into the red and then I think guys like [Alejandro] Valverde and myself… well, we know when to take our opportunities.”
Obviously it’s different now without Alberto Contador. Until his dramatic departure from the Tour in stage 10, Porte could have relied on the Spaniard and his Tinkoff-Saxo team.
Contador has repeatedly shown that he’s not just keen to go on the attack, it’s his raison d’être. Until he broke his tibia, he promised to keep on testing Nibali at every opportunity. He too has gone. So, I asked Richie Porte, does he have what it takes to challenge the Sicilian?
“We’ll just see. I’ve raced him a fair bit but usually I’m the one that’s doing the groundwork, much like Tinkoff-Saxo would have been doing if Alberto was still here. But we’ll take it day by day and climb by climb.
“I think Astana has been rock solid in their defence but it’s not easy to ride since stage three on the front. We’ve done it a couple of years with Bradley and Chris. We’ve ridden since stage eight and I know how hard that is.
“But for Vincenzo to attack like he did the other day, I think that takes balls to do that. He’s taken the race on and we’ll just see what happens.
“This next week is not easy for anybody so I think there are going to be opportunities out there on the road.”
The race to Chamrousse is likely to play a key role in determining the champion but Porte is being patient. His time, he believes, will come later in the Tour. “Obviously we’ve looked at the Pyrenees and they are hard stages,” he said yesterday. “The time trial… I like time trialling so that could be an opportunity for me to take some time back on the other GC guys. Also, Risoul: I know that one well – ‘Froomie’ and I, last year in the Dauphiné, were good on that climb. That’s in the stage this Saturday so there are opportunities.
“For the moment I’m happy with where I’m at. I’m happy that my health is good, my form is right where it has to be.
“It’s an uphill battle but I think we’re more than ready to have a good go at it.”
There is significant time that make up before Porte can consider taking the yellow jersey but there’s every reason for Australian fans to stay up late and cheer on the plucky – yet patient – Tasmanian. And he hopes to be able reward them for their support by becoming the second man from his land to stand on the podium in Paris as a GC rider.
“It’s great that they are getting behind me,” he said of the support he’s receiving from Australia. “I do appreciate it. I think it’s good for cycling – you know, the legacy of Cadel and these guys before me, it makes it a lot more interesting… I also hope I can do something to show them a bit of something for staying up all night every night watching because there have been a lot of sleep deprivation going on over there.”
– By Rob Arnold