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LONGWY, France (CT) – In a Tour de France with fewer chances for the GC men than normal, every opportunity counts. That seemed to be the philosophy at play when Richie Porte (BMC) attacked on the short climb to the finish of today’s stage 3 of the 2017 Tour.
Porte made his move with a little less than 900 metres remaining in the 1.6km stage-ending climb. First onto his wheel was Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), but the Spanish veteran couldn’t handle the pace and the gap to Porte grew to a few metres.
It seemed an important moment — one of the big GC favourites attacking at what was, realistically, his first opportunity. It appeared as if Porte was trying to make inroads into the 47-second deficit he picked up in the stage 1 individual time trial.
But Porte was quick to downplay the significance of his move, and of being able to drop Contador and others rivals.
“I’m not sure if I rode him off my wheel — it was a long way out from the finish,” Porte said. “[But] it’s good for the confidence just to have a bit of a crack there.”
The attack wasn’t pre-meditated, says Porte, but rather just a case of making the most of the situation he found himself in.
“The guys put me in a fantastic position there in the final and it felt good,” Porte said. “But I think when I saw that 500m to go I knew it was a little bit too far out.
“I think it’s good for the team. They were really strong today and it’s a shame we didn’t quite finish it off.”
Porte was caught not by one of his GC rivals, but by all-rounder extraordinaire Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). The world champion reached Porte’s wheel with roughly 450 metres to go, before sprinting to a commanding victory that was made all the more impressive by the fact the Slovakian’s foot slipped from his pedal just before the final kick.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb) was second, Dan Martin (QuickStep Floors) third, and Greg Van Avermaet — BMC’s big hope for the stage — finished fourth.
Porte himself finished in 14th place, crossing the line with the same time as Froome, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Contador and his other GC rivals.
For Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who finished eighth in the same group to maintain the overall lead, it was something of a surprise to see Porte’s late attack.
“To be honest I didn’t really expect him to attack, no,” Thomas said. “I thought it would be more Van Avermaet from his team, and then guys like that. But it shows that he’s going to be aggressive and he’s certainly going very well. He’s certainly one of the biggest threats and one to watch.
“As we all saw in the Dauphine — well, all year really — he’s flying. I’ve said from the start he’s the main man so he reinforced that today.”
So what does Porte’s attack mean for the days and weeks ahead? Does his ability to drop Contador, Chris Froome (Sky) and others bode well for the few mountain-top finishes the race does have? BMC general manager Jim Ochowicz thinks it’s too early to tell.
“Well, you know, these climbs are all different,” Ochowicz told CyclingTips. “You can’t base this one climb on the whole race. I think Richie’s got good form [but] I think you saw some other people coming across — Dan Martin included, getting third today — so [it was] a good race.”
It remains to be seen whether Porte’s ability to open a gap on his rivals today will translate to success on the race’s three big uphill finishes. But one thing’s clear — Porte has shown a willingness to get on the front foot; to take the race to his rivals rather than sitting back and waiting.
Tomorrow’s stage 4 is another one for the sprinters and a stage that Porte will be hoping he can get through unscathed. And then, it’s on to stage 5 where the GC contenders will get their first proper opportunity.
The 5.9km stage-ending climb to La Planche des Belles Filles is steep — an average of 8.5% with a final ramp of 20% — and it’s a climb that’s proven decisive in the past. Chris Froome won here in 2012 on his way to second overall (behind teammate Bradley Wiggins) and Vincenzo Nibali won here in 2014 en route to overall victory.
Based on his form this season, and indeed the intent he showed today, it seems likely we’ll see Richie Porte feature in the final kilometres of stage 5. After all, with limited opportunities in this year’s Tour, and the fact he’s currently 35 seconds behind defending champion Froome, he mightn’t have much choice.