Richie Porte's first season with Trek-Segafredo has not gone to plan so far after his early season was blown up with a bout of bronchitis, but the 34-year-old Australian is at the Tour of California this week looking to turn things around as he continues to build towards the Tour de France.
Porte started his season on a high note, taking his sixth consecutive win on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under and finishing second overall to Mitchelton-Scott's Daryl Impey. He stayed at home in Australia for the Herald Sun Tour, where he placed fifth overall, but things quickly went downhill from there as bronchitis set in.
He put in a lacklustre performance at the UAE Tour and then decided to skip Paris-Nice – a race he's won twice – in favour of racing at the Volta a Catalunya. Porte's performance there didn't grab any headlines, with his best finish coming in the team time trial on stage 1. After Catalunya, Porte took an extended break to recover, and is now in California to start sharpening his form for July.
"I haven't had the best start to the season," he said at the pre-race press conference in Sacramento. "With a new team, it's a bit of a funny one, but to come here, it's always motivating to do new races. It's the first time for me, so I'm really looking forward to stepping out on Sunday and getting things started.
"Of course, I'm always motivated, but it's not been a great start to the year," Porte said. "The Tour Down Under was good, and then continually getting sick and changing race programmes is not how I wanted to start with Trek-Segafredo.
"But the motivation is always good. It's a good quality field here, so it's not as simple as just wanting it and then it happening. But as long as I'm motivated, I think that's a step in the right direction."
The 2019 Tour of California features three former champions in 2017 winner George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma), 2015 winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and 2013 winner Tejay van Garderen (EF Education First).
Rohan Dennis, who has twice finished second in California, will return this year with Bahrain-Merida, while Bora-Hansgrohe has Max Schachmann and Felix Großschartner. UAE Team Emirates' Tadej Pogačar is also a rider to watch in the GC hunt, as is young American Brandon McNulty (Rally UHC).
Although Porte was loathe to choose a list of top rivals when asked, he singled out a former BMC Racing teammate as his prime competitor.
"I think Tejay van Garderen is probably the best guy at altitude in this race," Porte said. "He's Colorado-based, and he's grown up with it. George [Bennett] looks in good form, and there are a few wildcards. I think come Monday I'll be able to answer that a little bit better for you."
Monday's stage, of course, is the long uphill slog from Rancho Cordova to South Lake Tahoe. In 2018, van Garderen led the race going into the Tahoe stage on the sixth day but lost the jersey after a long attack from Team Sky's Egan Bernal. The 2019 route to Tahoe lacks the final brutal climb up Daggett Summit, but the altitude at Tahoe should provide an initial test of the GC contenders' fitness.
Although the entire route includes more than 20,000 metres of climbing, the most decisive stage will come on the penultimate day when the peloton climbs to the top of Mt. Baldy.
"I hear that's the most decisive stage," Porte said of the climb north-east of Los Angeles. "But also up to Tahoe, the altitude can play funny games, so that's also one to look forward to.
"To be honest, for the GC, every day is important. There's no day you can switch off. I think it's a bit of a shame for me that there's no time trial, but there's plenty of climbing in this race," he said.
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