Richie Porte may lie sixth overall, but he is fast emerging as the second strongest rider in the Tour de France and, though it's hard to argue that Chris Froome's yellow jersey is under any real threat, the Australian is the rider who everyone's starting to look at.
"Richie looks like the one with the most to gain in these next stages. If he continues the way he is I think we'll see him on the podium in Paris," said Froome after winning the uphill stage 18 time trial in Megève, where Porte closed the gap to the podium to 44 seconds.
Porte, who dropped everyone but Froome on Wednesday's summit finish at the Emosson dam, was the name that sprang straight to the mind of Adam Yates as well, the young Brit's third place now very much under threat.
"In my opinion Richie Porte is the most dangerous – he looks like the strongest climber in this race other than Froome," said Yates, overlooking two-time Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana, who's currently fourth but struggling physically.
Porte made up 50 seconds worth of ground on Yates over the 17-kilometre time trial course, finishing fourth on the stage but earning the 'Prix Bernard Hinault' by virtue of setting the quickest time at the top of the steep Col de Domancy after 7km – a tribute to the Frenchman's World Championships victory in 1980.
"Such a hard TT," Porte, still panting, told a huddle of reporters after crossing the line. "I don't think I got everything I had out. A little bit disappointed."
However, by the time he reached the mixed zone for post-stage media duties he had digested the fact that he had put time into every other podium contender, and was pretty content with his day's work.
"I did a good time trial today, took some more time out of some of the other GC guys. I showed I'm climbing well," he concluded, before looking ahead to the final two days in the Alps.
"Day-by-day I'm chipping away a bit more time. There are some big mountains and hopefully it's hard enough to take some more time out of some of these GC guys. It's just so tight that other teams can't let other GC guys go either. We need to look at it later tonight with the directeurs sportifs and see where we can peg some time back."
The fact that Porte has needed to chip away and peg back time must be the source of an agonising sense of 'what if'.
Indeed, the Australian would have been comfortably sitting in second place right now had ne not punctured in the closing phases of stage 2 and lost one minute 45 seconds. The bad luck resurfaced during the fiasco on Mont Ventoux, where he collided with a motorbike, the effects of which contributed to a disappointing time trial performance the following day.
He would still be some three minutes or so shy of Froome's lead, which looks utterly unassailable, but he would have been well on course for a first-ever Grand Tour podium finish. Thanks to his fine form, that is still a very realistic aim, though he's going to have to come from behind and do it the hard way.
"It's hard to think about the second stage and the time I threw away there," winced Porte, who once again described it as a 'disaster'.
"I hope all my bad luck's behind me now and I'm confident going into the next few days. It's no secret it's going to be a big battle, and I'm really looking forward to taking my chance.
"I really want the podium – I'm going to fight for it."
- Tour de France: Froome wins mountain time trial to Megève
- Tour de France: Stage 18 finish line quotes
- Tour de France: Quintana suspects allergy is holding him back
- Aru on the up as Tour de France reaches its climax in the Alps
- Froome edges closer to Tour de France title with time trial victory
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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