Could Richie Porte's Tour Down Un­der suc­cess be a sign of more to come?

Procycling - - Debrief -

Richie Porte was so much bet­ter than ev­ery­body else at the Tour Down Un­der that there are only two pos­si­ble con­clu­sions to draw. Ei­ther he’s peak­ing way, way too soon, or he’s go­ing to fin­ish on the podium of the Tour de France.

Ev­ery stage race be­tween Jan­uary and July (even, un­usu­ally, the Giro d’Italia this year) can be read on two lev­els. Of course, ev­ery race ex­ists in its own uni­verse – things hap­pen and a hi­er­ar­chy emerges. There are winners, losers, also-rans and con­tenders. The win­ner’s tro­phy is en­graved with only two things – the year and the name of the vic­tor. The en­graver has nei­ther the time, space nor any rea­son to add ifs, buts, whys and there­fores. Richie Porte was by far the strong­est rider on the two cru­cial hills of the week, each time putting around 20 seconds into the next-best rid­ers. And though it was more com­pli­cated than that, this was the boiled-down essence of the 2017 Tour Down Un­der. How­ever, once any stage race is done, we can’t help won­der­ing what it means later down the line. Porte’s in­creas­ingly con­fi­dent fifth place at the Tour de France last year (which could have been a third or sec­ond place if he’d avoided a couple of bits of bad luck) has turned the pub­lic per­cep­tion of him from a highly tal­ented bot­tler to a po­ten­tial win­ner. Porte, on his day, has been one of the best climbers in the world in the last three or four years, but be­fore the 2016 Tour, the one con­sis­tent as­pect of Porte’s per­for­mance in Grand Tours was ac­tu­ally his in­con­sis­tency.

If Porte does in­deed win the 2017 Tour de France, it will be pos­si­ble to draw a line from that 2016 race, through the 2017 Tour Down Un­der to the podium in Paris this July. When Porte at­tacked on Para­combe hill in stage two of the Aus­tralian race, he

There is no perfect path to the Tour – even Froome varies his pro­gramme in the irst half of the year

was out of the sad­dle, punch­ing hard, for two min­utes and 15 seconds, from about a third of the way all the way to the top (which meant that the ef­fort was not only very hard, but sus­tain­able, and per­fectly planned and ex­e­cuted). It was clear that no­body could live with him. The Giro d’Italia run­ner-up Este­ban Chaves, seen as a Grand Tour win­ner-in-wait­ing, ceded one quar­ter of a minute, which is a lot on a short climb such as Para­combe. Three days later on Wil­lunga Hill, Porte’s at­tack and win, his fourth in four years on the same climb, was equally con­fi­dent.

There­fore Richie Porte is go­ing to be a ma­jor fac­tor at the Tour de France. Only it’s not as sim­ple as that. There is no perfect path to the Tour – even Chris Froome has var­ied his pro­gramme con­sid­er­ably in the first half of the year each time he has won the yel­low jersey. But Porte is en­ter­ing new ter­ri­tory by be­ing so good so early in the year. No Tour de France win­ner has ever par­tic­i­pated in the Tour Down Un­der the same year as they have won it. Even Cadel Evans – like Porte, an Aus­tralian rider for BMC – skipped his home race in 2011, the year he won the yel­low jersey. The the­ory goes that Jan­uary is too early to be in good form. This is fine for rid­ers from other coun­tries, who can ease them­selves into the sea­son with an anony­mous race at the Tour Down Un­der – even Peter Sa­gan didn’t overex­tend him­self on the two hilly stages, lim­it­ing him­self to the sprints on the flat stages. But there’s pres­sure on home rid­ers to per­form, so gen­er­ally the choice is to turn up fit and run the risk of peak­ing too soon, or skip the race. Porte’s done some­thing rel­a­tively new in 2017, which is to turn up in racewin­ning form (which, to be fair, he’s done for a few years now, with his per­for­mances on Wil­lunga Hill, but has lost the GC else­where).

Porte’s been one of the most suc­cess­ful one-week stage rac­ers in the world for some years now, with one Catalunya and two Paris-Nice wins, plus podi­ums in the Basque Coun­try and Dauphiné. But he is now look­ing in­creas­ingly con­fi­dent and as­sertive as a team leader, and has laid down a marker to his ri­vals, some of whom are al­ready re­spond­ing in kind.

On a dif­fer­ent level, you could ask the same ques­tions of Caleb Ewan, who won the other four stages in bunch sprints. Like Porte, Ewan is a home favourite and like Porte, Ewan will come up against tougher, fit­ter, faster op­po­si­tion later in the year. In 2016, he dom­i­nated in the flat sprints in Jan­uary, but it took him un­til the end of Au­gust to win in Europe, and he took a fear­ful beat­ing in the sprints at the Giro d’Italia. Given a clear run at the line against good op­po­si­tion, Ewan usu­ally wins. In the faster, more con­gested argy-bargy of the Grand Tour sprints, against the likes of Kit­tel, Greipel and Cavendish, he has yet to prove him­self suc­cess­fully.

Nev­er­the­less, Ewan and Porte, by dom­i­nat­ing the Tour Down Un­der to such an ex­tent, have each headed off ques­tions about their form for the next couple of months. Mo­men­tum and con­fi­dence are very important in a Tour de France-win­ning sea­son, and Porte has both.

Porte is fo­cused as he rides at the front of the pelo­ton in the Tour Down Un­der

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