Beginning the Tour de France in a leadership position for the first time ever, Richie Porte was in a quietly confident mood on the eve of the race. The Australian faced the media at the press centre in Saint Lô on Friday and spoke of his strong condition and also the opportunities afforded by his new role.
“I’ve never been in as good a shape,” he said. “But more importantly, I have never been on a team where I have got my own opportunities [in the Tour]. That for me is exciting.
“It is a massive opportunity and that is why I am in BMC.”
Porte was inked to the team on the basis of his potential in Grand Tours. He proved several times in the past that he has an important mixture of climbing and time trial abilities. He won the Volta ao Algarve in 2012, last year’s Volta a Catalunya and the Giro del Trentino, and also took both the 2013 and 2015 Paris-Nice races.
Earlier in his career he was also seventh overall and best young rider in the 2010 Giro d’Italia.
BMC believed in him and now he’s targeting yellow with the squad in the sport’s biggest event.
“For me coming into it this year, it was nice that the team allowed me to gradually build up my season to be good in July,” he said. “Last year I think I came into this race running on fumes. I peaked in the Giro and then came here just as a backup rider.
“This is a massive opportunity, coming here alongside Tejay and leading a fantastic team.”
Until now Porte’s opportunities have been limited in the Tour. Riding the race in 2012, 2013, and 2015, he began the event committed to helping Sky leaders Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
He was 89th, 19th, and 48th in those three events, coming down sick in the latest edition.
His sole chance to head the team came in 2014 after Froome crashed out. Porte initially thrived, rising as high as second overall and holding that position until stage 12.
However his dreams of yellow were hampered by illness and he began a gradual descent down to 23rd overall in Paris.
The 2016 edition is a chance to show what he can really do, and he’s determined to seize the opportunity.
“I can climb with the best in the world”
Thus far this season, things have been encouraging but also controlled. He was second overall in the Santos Tour Down Under, third in Paris-Nice, fourth in the Volta a Catalunya and fourth again in the Critérium du Dauphiné.
His sole victory came back in January when he was best on Willunga Hill, but that’s fine; everything is about the Tour, and being as good as he can possibly be.
“I know that on my day I can climb with the best in the world,” he said, asked if he fully believed in his chances of being first overall in Paris. “Time trialing, I am not so bad at either.
“It is a long three weeks, it is a stressful three weeks. I am just going to take it a day at a time. But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that I had some chances.”
To win the race he will have to defeat Chris Froome, the rider he competed alongside for four years and someone who has been one of his best friends in the peloton.
Asked if the switch has affected the relationship, he played down such a notion. “Things haven’t really changed,” he said.
However he did accept that there has been a shift in their dealings. “Obviously I don’t see quite as much as I used to. Off the bike we are still friends, but on the bike it is important to say we are rivals.
“It no different with him, Quintana, or any of them – you still want to beat him.”
It is inevitable that going from a collaborator to a competitor will take getting used to. This is the case for both Porte and also his former Sky teammates. He’s managed by having two modes: how he acts on a human level, and how he sees things in races.
“At the end of the day, I am friends with G and a lot of these guys,” he explained. “But at races earlier this season, one of the guys I was banging bars with the most was Luke Rowe, who also happens to be one of my best friends.
“I don’t expect any favours off those guys, and I don’t think they have expect any favours off me. It is a bike race.”
Strength in numbers?
Of course, for Porte, the opposite dynamic has happened with van Garderen. He rode against the American for many years but now begins the race wearing the same colours and sharing a common goal.
As Team President Jim Ochowicz stressed on Friday, what’s important is the team winning the overall.
Having two cards is, he believes, an advantage, and he wants Porte and van Garderen to put that ambition above their own personal goals.
Porte said that their relationship has been good thus far.
“We have probably raced more in training [than in actual events], to be honest,” he said. “We do quite a lot of training together, but we raced Catalunya together.
“On the queen stage Tejay and I were attacking the other favourites. That is how we are going to ride the Tour. It is going to work brilliantly.”
Time will tell if that is indeed the case. Cadel Evans won the Tour in 2011 with the BMC Racing Team and has said there is the potential for tension between Porte and van Garderen due to their ambitious nature.
Asked about this comment, Porte didn’t dismiss it outright.
“For sure that is just the nature of the beast that we have both got aspirations,” he said. “But for the moment we raced well in Catalunya. We train well, we bounce scenarios off each other.
“It is always in that last week that if you have got numbers, it is a great tactical card to play.”