But as becomes clear from Sky Team Principal Dave Brailsford’s comments during the countdown to the race start, when it comes to fighting for cycling’s first Grand Tour of the season, it was never going to be a question of Sky throwing Porte in at the deep end and seeing whether he sank or swam. Or as Brailsford puts it “no-one ever landed on Mars just like that.”
Brailsford clearly believes that Porte has it in him to go for a Grand Tour. “Every race is a test, [but] not that many people can go to a Grand Tour and say I genuinely have a chance of winning this. And he has,” Brailsford told a small group of reporters.
“In three weeks' time, we'll know whether it worked out or not, but as you've seen with the [general election in the UK] polls” - forecast to end in hung parliament and in fact won by the Conservative Party - "it's pretty pointless to predict anything.”
“It is a big moment for him, he's 30 years old, he's had a great career, and I do believe he's a Grand Tour rider. if he can keep his health and keep his form form, we’ll see what he can do in three weeks time. It’s a great opportunity.”
To that end, Porte has applied some new techniques to his training program, including learning how to race and train better when already tired. Brailsford’s reasoning behind this is “we've seen some of our best individual performances over the years on days when the guys said that they didn't feel great, say I’m pretty amazed that happened. That’s an important lesson.”
“You can train for fatigue, you can race with fatigue, [because] if you just ride [simply] on how you feel, that can be a dangerous thing to work to, when you want to train and familiarise yourself with when you are having a grippy day.”
Porte’s proverbial ‘bad day at the office’ that seems to crop up a Grand Tour with a fair degree of regularity has been trotted out by his critics as the reason why he has not impacted on an overall classification in a three week Tour since 2010 when he took seventh in the Giro d’Italia. But Brailsford, once again, interprets those ‘bad days' differently.
“People say that, but if you get sick or ill, then that's something. If you sit back and look what happened in other races, then I don't buy the suggestion that he has a lack of consistency. There's been genuine reasons for it rather than some unknown sort of aberration. Personally, I think he has what it takes.”
Porte’s inexperience at leading a Grand Tour team from the get-go is, Brailsford confirms, a new point of departure for Sky in their five year history. But, he counters, Chris Froome was in the same situation of facing a learning curve for GT leadership at one point in his career with Sky and Bradley Wiggins, albeit at Garmin in the 2009 Tour, “went through the same thing.”
For that reason, he argues “what stands them in good stead if you can win a lot before you get there.” That’s something nobody could deny Porte has been doing this spring. This was also a ’strategy' employed by Wiggins, Froome and even, back in the day, by the GB national track team who had a relentless run of success in 2007 and 2008 prior to the start of their Olympic gold medal rush in Beijing -and Brailsford was one of the masterminds behind that.
“Every season is different, it’s where you're level at. No one is going to land on Mars just like that,” he argues.
“So if you get that belief system right, and you put yourself in the situation where you are doing well on the key and queen stages of the races and you manage to pull off the win, your self-belief rockets. And you get used to it, ‘You say I can do it, it's not a question of if but when I'm going to make the move’.”
“You start to think how to win the race rather than if you will still be in contention. It's more of a mindset things then anything else. We saw it with Froome, we saw it with Bradley, and hopefully we'll see it with Richie. He couldn't be any more ready to have a crack at this, put it that way.”
Weight loss has been another big step forward for Porte - although Brailsford carefully explains that there’s a question of balancing losing the kilos too fast and the risk of losing power. “You don’t want to get to a certain point where if you like it’s diminishing returns and the more you try to squeeze out, the more downhill you go.”
So with a leaner, meaner Porte now battling for the Giro making it obvious what his short-term aims are, questions as to whether the 30-year-old will stay with Sky in the future are beginning to become more frequent.
Asked if he would be announcing Porte’s re-signing for Sky very soon, Brailsford laughed and said “Not today! But some time in the near future, I’d like to think.”
“At the end of the day, he’s been with us quite a long time, he’s been great for us, he’s been a fantastic teammate to Bradley and Chris and deserves his own chance. I’d like to think this is the start of a great couple of years for him and I ‘d like to continue with him.”
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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