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