The contenders for Tour of Oman victory sat down and met with the press in Muscat on the eve of the race and immediately indulged in a game of pass the parcel, each insisting more vehemently than the next that he was unsure of his condition at this early point in the season.
Richie Porte (BMC) may well have had the weakest case in that regard. The Australian was an impressive winner at Willunga Hill during the Tour Down Under – his third straight win atop the climb – and few will believe that the Tour of Oman simply marks a convenient stopover en route to his European base.
“We just have to see. I don't feel that much pressure coming into this race. It's nice to be here and break the trip up from Australia,” said Porte. “The Tour Down Under for an Australian brings a lot of pressure to perform, whereas here it's a little bit more relaxed.”
The Tour Down Under certainly augured well for Porte’s spring. With the Giro d’Italia in mind, he had very deliberately hit the ground running in 2014 and 2015. This time around, by contrast, his off-season was more relaxed, yet he emerged with similar January results.
“I was surprised to be second on GC and win the Willunga stage, I didn't expect that,” Porte said. “I learned that it's all about being relaxed in January for me. I learned that even though I didn't do as much of the work that I did last year, I still came away with a good result.
“My new coach David Bailey just said to me that I should just ride my bike and enjoy it while I was at home in Tasmania, and that's what I've been doing. When you’re down there, though, the riding is tough, so you get the benefits from being out there riding and doing the kilometres.”
While the Tour de France is the overriding objective of Porte’s season, he pointed to next month’s Paris-Nice, where he is seeking a third overall victory, as an important intermediate goal on the long road to July. “I'd rather go to Paris-Nice and try to get a GC win there [than win in Oman –ed.],” Porte said. “Here it's all going to come down to the Green Mountain stage [on Friday – ed.] so we'll just see what happens then.”
The Tour Down Under marked Porte’s first outing with his new BMC team after four seasons with Team Sky. He has yet to race alongside his Tour de France co-leader Tejay van Garderen, but Porte insisted that they would have no problems in dovetailing their efforts.
“We've done a fair bit of riding together in the off-season, there's no problems. We’re on the same page, and he's quite a good friend now as well,” Porte said. “I'll be doing quite a bit of training with him when we are back together in Nice. We are on the same race programme until the Tour de France other than here, we are only going to get closer and learn how to ride together.”
While Porte was part of a formidable double act with his friend Chris Froome during his time at Sky, his place in the hierarchy was never in doubt. Now 31 years of age, and signed expressly as a co-leader for the Tour, the lie of the land at BMC appears rather different.
“When you go to a team and you are co-leader, with Tejay, it's not like being in Team Sky when you are going in with Chris Froome who is, rightly so, the outright leader,” Porte said. “It's a little bit more pressure [being a leader] I suppose, but I've never been able to target the Tour de France in July, so it's quite exciting.”
A rather deluxe domestique on the Sky team that helped Bradley Wiggins to Tour de France victory in 2012, Porte could raise a smile, too, when asked if his tandem with van Garderen would run along similar lines to the Nairo Quintana-Alejandro Valverde partnership at Movistar. “I'd rather that than a Froome-Wiggins tandem, I guess!”