Richie Porte heads into the Tour Down Under's Willunga Hill stage on Saturday in an enviable position, having navigated successfully two 'transitional' stages sandwiched between the two major days of climbing in the race and holding a 20-second buffer on the injured Gorka Izaguirre (Movistar).
Should Porte prevail on Saturday afternoon, it would mark the fourth straight year he's won on Willunga Hill. It would also make 11 straight stage wins for Australians in the race, and four years in row an Australian has won the overall title.
In 2012, Willunga Hill debuted as a stage finish, and Alejandre Valverde and Simon Gerrans won here before Porte began his winning streak. But for the past three years, the BMC Racing Team captain entered into the stage chasing time on GC.
A first overall victory is very much within reach of Porte at Willunga, but the 31-year-old was stressing the importance of watching the moves of his rivals and focusing on winning the war and not just the battle.
"On paper, yesterday and today [there] was so much to lose and not a lot to gain for me, so to get that one done was a massive relief. Now, it's Willunga, which I know quite well, but that is a different scenario this year going into it," Porte said after collecting his third ochre jersey of the race following back-to-back sprint wins for Caleb Ewan. "I don't have to attack; I just have to follow. It is not all about the stage for me tomorrow; it is about trying to defend the overall."
Last year's finish into Campbelltown featured the challenging Corkscrew climb, but in 2017, the race organisers reversed the approach of the peloton and favoured the sprinters. At the end of the stage, there was no change to the top nine, ensuring Willunga Hill will decide a tight battle for the GC behind Porte.
"They have to attack, but we have a great team, and I am pretty relaxed with where I am at," Porte said of his rivals. "If they want to hit out early, we are going to have the team to control it. We have the trump card in Rohan Dennis. He is lean, he is strong, and really motivated, and I think that is when Rohan races at his best."
Having proven himself as the best climber in the stage to Paracombe, Porte highlighted two Spanish speakers as his chief rivals. While the race is on for Porte to secure his ochre jersey, the race is well and truly alive for the podium and top-ten overall.
"I'll see how Izaguirre is tomorrow, he had a bad crash yesterday, but I think also Sergio Henao. Don't rule him out, he is fantastic form, and he is also one to watch tomorrow," Porte explained of the climb he described as having a Tour de France-esque atmosphere.
"The other years it has been try and take as much time back as possible. It has never quite worked but I have a good little buffer on some of the other guys. The way I am climbing at the moment, never rule it out."
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