While Chris Froome struggles with the climbs after a spring illness, his Team Sky teammate Richie Porte is demonstrating fine form at the Volta a Catalunya, coming tantalisingly close to a stage win and bringing an overall victory closer to his reach during the 'queen stage' to La Molina on Thursday.
Porte caught and dropped Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), his fellow Giro d'Italia contender, on the final pitch to the finish, but missed out on the stage win to Tejay van Garderen (BMC). He now sits 21 seconds behind new race leader Bart De Clercq (Lotto Soudal), a member of the stage 1 breakaway that gained 2:40 on the peloton.
"I’m a little bit disappointed to take second on the stage," Porte admitted to TeamSky.com. "Credit to Tejay, he attacked at the right moment. I needed to watch Alberto and Rigo a bit at that point but in terms of how the day went the team were fantastic."
The team set a blistering pace over the day's penultimate ascent, the Alt de la Creueta, then reeled in the breakaway at the base of the final climb.
"We took it on over the Creueta and to still have four guys over the top with me speaks volumes of the commitment from the boys," Porte said. "When Alberto attacked on the final climb we had Kiry [Vasil Kiryienka] up the road. He got a bit of a gap initially but I never panicked. I was expecting he’d attack and I was happy to ride back to Kiry – who then rode as Kiry does – like a steamroller. I was coming back at Tejay but just came up a little short."
Porte would be six seconds in the lead over Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale), with Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and Contador just behind had it not been for the opening stage gambit, where the teams of the sprinters and GC favourites took too long to begin chasing down the three-man breakaway. Whether or not gaining 21 seconds is beyond his grasp remains to be seen.
"The stage on Monday was a bit of a funny one with the organisers not giving us time gaps," Porte said. "I think we’re making the most of a strange situation. We’re all quite happy with how it went today.
"I’ll take it as it comes. We can look at Bart De Clercq and try to take some seconds off him. But then it’s really tight behind with bonus seconds left on the road. But I think we’ve got guys who can help out if we need to. We saw Wout (Poels) and Nico clean up a few on the first stage. We’ll see, but it’s my goal to be as high on GC as possible."
Even without an overall victory in Catalunya, Porte's form and, more importantly, his consistency, has been solid with just 43 days to the start of the Giro d'Italia. With the Australian time trial title, a second overall in the Tour Down Under and the Paris-Nice overall victory in the bag so far this year, Porte is looking more the Grand Tour contender than ever.
"Today was a big boost in my morale heading into the Giro. Most of the favourites for that race are here and to distance them was great. I feel a bit like I’m flying under the radar at the moment without the attention of guys like Rigo [Rigoberto Uran] and Alberto. But I’m really feeling ready to take my opportunity. I’m looking forward to May.”