Porte surges to Tour Down Under lead, but the race is far from over

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PARACOMBE, Australia (CT) – If history is anything to go by, Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) is on his way to winning the 2020 Tour Down Under. On the race’s last two visits to Paracombe, the stage winner there became the overall champion. Today, Porte made his bid to extend that record.

Just as he did in 2017 – the last time Paracombe featured – Porte attacked more than a kilometre from the finish, rode everyone off his wheel, then continued on to win the stage alone. And just like on the corresponding stage in 2017, Porte’s victory today saw him depose Caleb Ewan as the overall leader of the race.

Everything went according to plan for Porte. Well, almost everything. He’d been hoping to open more of a gap on two-time defending champion Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) by the finish but the weather conspired against him.

“Other than that headwind there in the final, it was really good,” Porte said. “I think I lost a bit of time there in the last 300. But it was nice to get the gap that I did.

“The team were fantastic today and I think it was a good race, a good battle. I would like to have taken a little more time on Daryl [Impey] but you’ve got to take the victories when you can and I’ll savour this one.”

Impey finished sixth on the stage, part of an eight-man group that hit the line five seconds behind Porte. Second across the line was the West Australian Rob Power (Sunweb) having narrowly edged out Impey’s teammate Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).

A Yates podium had seemed highly improbable at the start of the day. He crashed heavily on stage 2, injuring his knee, and was no certainty to even take the start. But after dealing with some pain early in the stage, Yates’ condition improved enough to be right in the mix.

“I think it’s a good job we didn’t have a quick start up the highway there,” Yates said afterwards. “But no, once we sort of got into it, it started getting better and better.”

With his win today, and the time bonus it brought, Porte now leads the Tour Down Under by six seconds. Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White admits Porte is now “in pole position”, but he and his Aussie outfit aren’t giving up hope.

“Look, we knew Richie would be the one to beat up here and he was too good for everyone today,” White said in Paracombe after the stage. “But the gap’s minimal. And we just go back to our usual plan.”

That usual plan? Time bonuses for Impey.

It was time bonuses that put Impey in a position to win his first Tour Down Under in 2018, when he and Porte finished on equal time and the race was decided in a countback. It was time bonuses in 2016 that allowed Simon Gerrans to beat Porte. Likewise in 2014 when Gerrans beat Cadel Evans.

By now, it’s no secret that Mitchelton-Scott will try to snag more time bonuses where they can. It’s more a question of whether anyone can stop them.

Porte’s philosophical about the whole thing. He seems willing to leave it up to Willunga.

“We’ve got fast guys like Kiel [Reijnen] and also Mads [Pedersen] as well but look, I think we’ll just take it one day at a time,” he said. “But if that’s how the race goes, then, it’s just how it is. I mean, Willunga — we’re going to have to do a good race.”

As ever, the Tour Down Under will be decided on its most famous hill. Porte will be the unbackable favourite. He’s won on Willunga every year for the past six, and has clearly shown he has the form to make it seven in a row.

But Impey is no easy-beat. Last year he finished third behind Porte, but on the same time. That fact will give Mitchelton-Scott some comfort.

“It’s doable [the overall win], because Daryl’s improved on Willunga,” White said.”This climb here [Paracombe], once you have got a gap it’s easier to go on with it, whereas Willunga — it’s a longer climb but it’s not as brutal as Paracombe.”

Willunga is still a few days away. Before then are two stages that, while likely to be sprint finishes, could still affect the GC. Stage 5 in particular — the same finish in 2016 saw a late climb split the field before a reduced bunch sprint in Victor Harbor. Gerrans won that day, to take 10 bonus seconds over Porte. He won the tour by nine seconds that year. It’s not hard to imagine Impey doing similar this year.

And then there’s the weather to consider: “there’s a lot of wind predicted for the next couple days,” said White, “so it’ll make things pretty tricky I think.”

Could Mitchelton-Scott try to split the race in the crosswinds, in the hope of catching Porte napping? For the bike racing fan, that’s an exciting prospect.

Make no mistake: Porte is still the favourite. In all likelihood, Paracombe will remain the Tour Down Under’s kingmaker. But with just six seconds separating Porte and Impey, and with three stages to come, the Tour Down Under is still very much alive.

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