Both Richie Porte (Team Sky) and Team Principal Dave Brailsford are quietly satisfied with how the Australian has performed throughout the first nine days of the Giro d’Italia, where the 30-year-old lies third overall as the stage 14 time trial looms closer on the horizon.
So far Sky have had a stage win with Elia Viviani, who also remains in command of the points jersey and Porte remains on track in GC. Both Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Fabio Aru (Astana) have skirmished hard on the mountain stages, but neither of them has shaken off Porte.
On the climbs so far - and there are some much bigger challenges to come - the top three riders on GC have seemed more or less equal. But right now the Australian is just 22 seconds behind Contador, he has come through the first week without getting entangled in accidents or crashes -always a worry, as Contador can testify - and his constant presence at the race’s crunch moments so far strongly suggests that Porte will be a very difficult customer to handle in the time trial next Saturday. Taking the maglia rosa there is not a certainty for the Australian, of course, but as things stand it is a very real possibility.
"Today’s [Sunday] stage went really well, I’m happy it [the first week] is over, it’s nice to be into the racing, I feel good and looking forward to a good rest day," Porte told reporters at the stage 9 finish. Asked if he was waiting for the time trial, he answered, "Yes, but also you see like today" - where he managed to shadow Aru and Contador to the line again, dropping Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-QuickStep) - "you have to take the opportunities where they come."
Distancing his former teammate Rigoberto Urán of course, is also in Porte’s interests - arguably more so, in fact, than for Contador and Aru, given the Colombian is also a formidable time triallist. But as Brailsford told a small group of reporters as he waited for the riders at the Sky team bus, the whole week has worked according to plan.
"It’s been a very good nine stages for us, a stage win - very good - we’ve got the red jersey and we’ve come here to play the long game.
"From experience we came into this Grand Tour maybe thinking about it slightly differently to others, biding our time and being a bit more patient and strategic and using the fact that Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo are very strong and we can ride off that for the time being.
"We are keeping our heads down, keeping out of trouble and staying well-positioned. And we’re pretty happy with that."
Porte has put in a couple of digs - "stretching his legs." as Brailsford puts it - on the climbs, most notably on the Campitello Matese. Even if those accelerations haven’t shaken off the other riders in the same style as they might have, say, at Paris-Nice’s summit finish in March, they are a sign to the other contenders, and himself, that he is in good shape.
As for the stage 14 time trial, Brailsford is keen not to get too far ahead just yet. He likens the battle for GC to "a hurdle race. If you’re worrying about the 13th hurdle when you’re at the second, you’re likely to fall over the second.
"As that time trial is looming, you’ve got to think about it. But you’ve got to be careful it doesn’t start to cloud your thinking. From our point of view we’ll just take it on the stage by stage and bide our time and ultimately.
"There haven’t been any significant time differences yet, but we do know that there will be then in the time trial, positive or negative. That’s going to happen. How, though, we don’t know yet."
He disagrees that the Giro d’Italia has come down to a three horse race, pointing out that he knows Urán well from his time at Sky, where the Colombian claimed his first Grand Tour podium in the Giro d’Italia back in 2013.
"You can’t rule Rigo out, it’s quite clear that he’s been ill and if he gets back to his full potential - and he’s got quite a while to do that - he could put minutes, literally, into people at that time trial.
"So he’s not out of contention by any stretch of the imagination. Then increasingly if I had to pick one of the strongest climbers here, I would probably say [Mikel] Landa [Astana], he seems to be better than the rest to me. If I was in his shoes, I know what I’d be doing."
However, Brailsford seems certain Sky’s own rider is bang on track for Giro d’Italia contention, as planned and has no criticisms at all of how Porte, despite his relative inexperience at leading in a Grand Tour, has performed.
"He’s been perfectly placed, he hasn’t put a foot wrong. He’s been at the right wheel at the right time and he’s never had to go into the red all week. Strategically he’s ridden a fantastic race so far."
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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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