Cycling: Richie Porte, Sky's Plan B, primed for duty
Stage race wins all season, second in last year's Tour, the absence of Bradley Wiggins, no mishaps in the final build-up to Saturday's start and a team clearly dedicated to getting him to Paris wearing yellow: Chris Froome's status as overwhelming Tour favourite is as solid as ever. But the feeling is growing stronger that Richie Porte, nominally Sky's Plan B, could well be in the frame for a top-three placing in Paris as well.
Porte has always been a general-classification candidate in the making – as shown when he became leader of the Giro d'Italia in his first year as a pro back in 2010 before eventually finishing seventh and picking up the race's Best Young Rider award. Then, after switching to Sky in 2012 and taking the Tour of the Algarve, in the following year the Tasmanian made another big step up by winning Paris-Nice, France's second toughest stage race, and finishing second behind Froome in the Critérium du Dauphiné, the key warm-up event for the Tour.
The former Tour de France pro Charly Wegelius told The Independent that he is certainly impressed. "I said to someone the other day that the miraculous thing about Sky's strength in depth is that they're here without Wiggins, but they've still got two riders they can conceivably get on the final podium," said the Briton, now a sports director with the Garmin-Sharp team but who raced against Porte in the 2010 Giro d'Italia.
"Richie is wise beyond his years as a racer, and he could take a step forward again. And if he's renewed his contract with them" – which he did earlier this year – "then they must have big plans for him in the future."
That future is supposed to see Porte tackle the Giro next year as Sky's leader, but at this year's Tour the official line is that the 28-year-old looks more likely to remain, at least initially, as Froome's key wing-man in the mountains.
Yet Porte's hugely impressive season – which has led a rival like Alberto Contador to say he would be "100 per cent an overall contender in any other team" – would suggest that the Australian may yet be destined for more than a straight support role over the coming three weeks.
"It's nice to be sheltered," Porte said. "Chris has got the pressure, not me, so I'll just take it as it comes."
Asked how he handled being Sky's Plan B, he said: "It's just part of what it is. Last year I won the Tour of the Algarve and that was my opportunity to shine. This year I was thrown in at the deep end and had my opportunities, which you don't get in this team so often [because it has such a wealth of talent]. I always had the talent, but this year it has all just fallen into place."
It seems unlikely, though, that Porte and Froome will end up with a relationship as tense as Froome's and Wiggins'. Porte is a close friend of Froome. Both live in Monaco and train together almost every day. And Porte writes himself out of fighting for yellow unless circumstances change radically. "God forbid that something should happen to Chris, [but if it did] I'll have my opportunities. However it's not part of the plan."
But did he think he could get on the podium during the race he was asked by L'Equipe earlier this week? "It's a dream," he replied. "It depends on the sacrifices I might have to make for Chris."
But Contador, for one, believes that Sky will wait until after the first long individual time trial on stage 11 before reaching a definitive decision on Porte's role.
It could turn out to be bigger than the Australian himself currently imagines.
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