With the race reaching its first rest day and the Vosges Mountains now firmly behind him, Richie Porte (Team Sky) sits second overall in the Tour de France. It’s an enviable position for all but one of the Tour de France contenders remaining in the race, but the Australian is focused and determined to seize the opportunity that has come his way.
Heading into the race, Porte was labelled as the team’s "plan B": a polite way of saying you’re here to support Chris Froome and unless he falls off and goes home, that’s all you do. Ten days into the race and while no one on the team would see Froome’s departure as good news or a reason to celebrate, Porte finds himself with the chance of a lifetime.
Having missed his main goal of the Giro d’Italia through illness, he has flown under the radar. Unlike the likes of Nibali and Valverde he has not faced a sustained period of pressure-building questions over his Tour credentials. At the Team Sky press conference on Tuesday morning it was perhaps little wonder that the Tasmanian is relaxed and even jovial.
“Anyone is beatable,” he said, cutting straight to the point when asked if he can topple race leader Vincenzo Nibali.
“He’s in a great position and he has a great team that has controlled this race really well. We’ve seen that this Tour throws in surprises everywhere so it’s not over until Paris. We have to attack him now. It’s our race to take to him and I’m sure Valverde and all these guys coming into the Pyrenees will do…we’re going to see some exciting racing.”
Currently sitting 2:33 behind Nibali but ahead of Valverde, Romain Bardet and Tejay van Garderen, Porte has been trust centre stage at Team Sky. Froome’s premature departure on the stage to Arenberg has seen Dave Brailsford scrub "Plan A" from his whiteboard of marginal gains and circle Porte as the squad’s main hope for success.
So far, so good as Porte has not only withstood the extra attention but also thrived on it. That has come due to his performances on the bike, a bigger catalyst for a happy bike rider you’ll never find, with a robust showing on stage 10 in which he controlled the pursuit if an attacking Nibali. Despite some of his cannier rivals extracting a handful of seconds from him at the line, the signs are good.
“I want something and I want it right now but the team have been great. They’ve put me in a fantastic position each day. Every climb we do, it’s a fight for position in the last kilometre, even on the descents as it’s wet and quite dangerous but I tip my hat because the boys haven’t missed a beat in the last 10 days and I think we flew under the radar a bit and I think that’s what we had to do as there was no stress in the team.”
The Tour of course is far from won. While the prevailing general consensus suggests that this is Nibali’s Tour to lose, logic dictates that everything still rests on a knife edge. The two pre-race favourites are at home on the sofa while second to 10th are separated by less than two minutes. A crash, a moment of concentration lost, and bad day and everything could change. Contador and Froome have gone and they’ve taken predictability with them.
Porte may draw on inspiration from two areas. He led the Giro d’Italia in 2010 and although circumstances are now entirely different and the stakes have soared immeasurably, he can point to that break through result from his neo-pro season as proof that he can compete consistently.
“I’d say I’m four or five kilos lighter than I was then,” he said when a reporter asked how much he’d changed since that race.
“I was a chubby little neo pro back then. If there’s something that I can take from that is that every day was a struggle and a fight. Seventh in my first grand tour was a big result then. That’s no different from the mental approach that I have to take and certainly now I know I’ve improved a lot as a rider. I have a team behind me and Sky have won the last two tours so I’m confidence of them backing me and pitting me in a strong position.”
His second bastion of hope comes from the team around him. Sky knows what it takes to win a Tour de France and they’ve carried of almost seamless titles for the last two seasons. The fact that they’ve managed that feat with two different riders speaks volumes for a depth of talent and relative strength in adaptability. Porte may not be in the ranks of Wiggins and Froome yet but his team believe he’s close.
“I train with Chris Froome everyday. I don’t really see him as a Tour winner. He’s more of a mate. Last thing he said to me was ‘you can have these guys, believe that’. He told other guys in the team to get around me, and I appreciate that. He sometimes has more belief in me than I do but he said before the crash that we could both be on the podium.”