Tour de France 2014: Now Chris Froome has gone it is Richie Porte’s big chance to impress, says Sean Yates
Former Team Sky sports director says it's Tasmanian's turn 'to step up to the plate'
There’s one phrase that the former Team Sky sports director Sean Yates repeats constantly when describing Richie Porte’s prospects of success this month: “It’s his big chance and Richie has got nothing to lose.”
Yates perhaps finds it easier to identify with the 29-year-old rider than other Sky leaders. He himself led the Tour for a day in 1994 and won a Tour stage in 1989. But like Porte for most of his career so far, much of the Sussex rider’s time as a pro centred on being a “super-domestique” or top helper of team leaders.
Now, though, following Chris Froome’s abandonment of the Tour, Sky will be using Porte as their “Plan B” to battle for the overall classification. Or as Yates puts it: “It’s Richie’s turn to step up to the plate. It’s his big chance.”
Yates also knows Porte well as a racer, given that, before quitting Sky in October 2012 for health and personal reasons, the Briton was the team’s sports director when they won their first Tour, with Bradley Wiggins two years ago. That July, Porte was one of the squad’s key mountain riders.
Now Porte, lying eighth overall after Thursday’s stage, is Sky’s top Tour rider, and Yates feels the Tasmanian is in a position to show his potential to shine in a Grand Tour. According to Yates, that was why Sky originally signed him, but his overall ability was overshadowed by the rise of Froome and Wiggins.
He says: “Richie first really impacted when he was the Giro d’Italia leader [and finished seventh overall, his best Grand Tour result] back in 2010 and Sky snapped him up in 2011 as a GC [general-classification] rider. But then Bradley and Froomey came along and since then he’s been a super-domestique.”
Nineteenth in the Tour last year when he also took the Paris-Nice race – his biggest win to date – Porte’s big chance to lead a Grand Tour attempt for Sky was supposed to be in the Giro d’Italia this May. But illness led him to refocus on racing as Sky’s fallback option in the Tour.
Yates agrees that one of two big question marks over Porte is his relative lack of experience, saying “as a top domestique your main responsibility is to be good on certain days, not on all of them like when you’re leading a team.
“He’s not got Froome’s track record as a Grand Tour leader, so who knows what can happen? But either way, Sky have got no option but to put their faith in him.”
Asked if he could win the Tour outright, Yates replies: “He’s one of the outsiders, but not many of those outsiders can time-trial like Richie. So in theory he’s got a very good chance. There’s hope, if you’d like.
“If he has a good day in the mountains and backs that up in the last time trial, he’s got a very good chance of getting on the podium.” As for winning it, Yates says simply: “Nothing’s impossible.”
The second big question, though, is whether Porte can iron out the uneven level of performance he showed in last year’s Tour, when his provisional second place overall behind Froome went up in smoke in a single day in the Pyrenees.
“The worrying thing is his consistency. One bad day in the Tour and you’ve had it,” says Yates. “But now he’s got no choice, he can’t bottle out, he’s got to step up to the plate.
“He’s had a patchy season [with abandons in several races in the spring] but that could mean he’s a lot fresher than the other names. It’s a chance he’s been wanting to have and it’s all fallen into place for him, through Froomey’s bad luck.
Sean Yates when Sky sports director (Getty Images)
“The key thing [for Porte] is he’s got nothing to lose, he’s still young, so the world is his oyster. When a top name [like Froome] is missing, it’s a situation where everybody’s going to want to grab the chances they can, including Porte.”
The Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk – who won the Tour the last time a defending champion, France’s Bernard Hinault, abandoned because of an injury like Froome, way back in 1980 – tells The Independent: “Obviously [race leader Vincenzo] Nibali is the big favourite after what he did on the cobbles [of stage five, reinforcing his lead], but Porte has a chance.”
Zoetemelk added: “He’s got to try and take it. He’s only two minutes back. The problem is that everybody will be thinking the same way.”
As for Froome, a possible ride in the Vuelta a Espana – in which he has finished second and fourth in the past – could, in Yates eyes, “be both an ideal target in itself and a great way of building early condition for next year, when he’ll be back at the Tour.” For now, though, it’s Porte’s turn to shine.
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