Richie Porte (Team Sky) heads into this year's Tour de France well aware of the size of the challenge facing him and his teammates as they search for a third straight win. The Australian, who makes the trip from his home in Monaco to Leeds on Wednesday, has endured a mixed season on the road but has told Cyclingnews that he has finally found his form and that his team leader Chris Froome is ready to defend his Tour title.
"Obviously we've won the last two and we're going with Chris in good form, so it's exciting. I know that it's not going to be easy, but then more personally for me I'm in good shape and I'm looking forward to getting to Yorkshire and starting the race" Porte told Cyclingnews.
The Australian will look to match his Tour ride from twelve months ago when he shepherded Froome through the mountain stage and helped set the British rider up for overall victory. However it's been a mixed season for Porte. He started strongly with a podium in the Tour Down Under and despite a late switch in schedule, started Tirreno-Adriatico in decent form. However he was forced out of the race through illness and he missed the Giro d'Italia, which had been pencilled in as the main target for his season.
Several training camps at altitude followed and he slowly found his feet at the Dauphiné last month. Despite not showing his best condition in recent months, Porte believes that he is heading to Yorkshire in form.
"I'm going really well on the bike and my weight is down on twelve months ago. It wasn't great to have the Giro as my big goal and not race it, but I'm fresh and I'm going into the Tour in better shape than I was last year. It is what it is, and I would have preferred to do the Giro for myself, but it's still easy to get excited by the prospect of being in top form for the Tour."
"I was in good form and then I had gastro and wasn't able to start the next day," Porte said of his Tirreno-Adriatico abandon. "Then I got sick and I had issues with my set up on my bike, things that shouldn't have happened, and it's not been easy but the team has been good with me and we've chipped away at the problems. I'm in a good place. I'm where I need to be."
Whether that turns out to be the case or not, Porte and his team are well aware that the challenge of winning another Tour could prove harder than ever with a resurgent Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) showing glimpses of his best condition throughout the season. Froome and Contador duelled at the Dauphiné last month and although Froome won the first two stages, a crash for the British rider in the final few days, coupled with Contador's strength in the mountains, indicate that the Spaniard is a major threat for yellow.
"I think it’s going to be harder to win this year than it was last year. There’s a better Alberto Contador this year and Chris had that crash at Dauphiné, which wasn't good for him but he's back where he needs to be and in good shape.
"At the start of the Dauphiné he won the first two stages quite convincingly. The crash he had did take it out of him. He realised that it wasn't going to be possible to win Dauphiné at that point but in training he's quite impressive. He's ready.
"I think for us this year, it's no questions asked a stronger team. I would have been nice to have had Sergio and Stannard. A lot has been said about other riders not making the squad but for us last year Stannard was bullet-proof. That's a big loss but we've got guys like Pate, Eisel and Zandio so it's a strong climbing team and a strong team for the flats. I'ts a really versatile team."
Team Sky's final selection saw 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins miss out on a spot. The Olympic time trial champion had not raced in Sky colours while alongside Froome since the 2013 Tour of Oman and despite winning the Tour of California in May, the team's management opted to leave the rider at home.
"Me personally, I've always gotten along well with Bradley. I've not really seen him since Tirreno this year. This is probably the hardest decision that the team has had to make, to leave out the winner of the Tour from two years ago. I understand people's criticisms and Brad is obviously the poster boy of British Cycling but I think we've got a strong team."