Porte given chance to step out of the shadows in "Race to the Sun"

cycling,AUS,paris-nice,richie porte,Team sky,tour de france,alex hinds,al hinds
Succession plan... 2013 could be a defining year for Richie Porte as Bradley Wiggins begins prepping Chris Froome for leadership. Porte is waiting in the wings to fill Froome's role at Team Sky. (AAP)

A rare opportunity beckons for Richie Porte to shine at Paris-Nice, the "Race to the Sun", and the Australian is more than ready to take on the Team Sky leadership mantle after impressing at the Tour of Oman.

If it comes down to the time trial on Col d'Eze - If it comes down to that, I know that climb better than anybody else here, it's in my backyard I've done it a lot. I wouldn't say I like it, but I will say, bring it on.

With so much emphasis on Bradley Wiggins last year from Team Sky, it was almost by accident that Richie Porte was given an opportunity at all, early in the year at the Volta ao Algarve. Porte converted good form into a solid all-round performance at the Portugese stage race, leaving the field in his wake on the queen stage up Alto do Malhão, before backing up with a strong time trial to win the race comfortably. It was Porte's only leadership role with Sky for the year, turning super-domestique for Wiggins for the remainder of 2012.

The year produced results. Wiggins dominated from Paris-Nice to the final day of the Tour, but in a team blessed with athletic talent - that had ripped apart La Planche des Belles Filles at Le Tour - and before that on the Col du Joux Plane in the Criterium du Dauphine - there was always the question of what the team's super domestiques Chris Froome and Richie Porte could do given a little bit of leash from the team's management.

At least for Froome, the all-for-Wiggins mentality, wasn't exactly harmonious and Team Sky's approach to the 2013 season has been distinctively different, at least partially in a bid to keep its senior riders happier. Froome flew the flag for the team at the Tour of Oman and now Porte has been given the team's total support for Paris-Nice. Wiggins meanwhile will head to Tirreno-Adriatico to hone his Giro d'Italia team.

Much of the focus of the media attention on Sky so far this year has been the Froome-Wiggins leadership question. Paris-Nice however will be a golden opportunity for Porte to step out of the British duo's shadows as a viable third candidate, perhaps not for 2013, but for 2014 and onward.

The diminutive Australian was given the nod to wear the number one for the week-long French stage race after his Oman performance, a sign he's certainly earning plaudits inside Team Sky.

"I was at Oman and I wasn't going too bad, and they sort of said to me, 'if you can stay out out of trouble then we'll back you for GC'," told Cycling Central from Houilles, where the race starts Sunday.

"That's a nice feeling, to come to a race like Paris-Nice, with its history, and have the freedom which I do have, but then there's also pressure, isn't there? It's not like last year where you just rolled up and did your job and got out of there.

"Now it's fighting in the cross-wind stages everyday, making sure you're near the front, riding incident free. I am a little bit nervous but I'm looking forward to the race. Getting in there and having a real crack."

Porte recognises this a good chance "to stand up", but says he's got nothing to prove to team management who he believes have full-confidence in his ability, only to outsiders.

The field for Paris-Nice is not quite that of Tirreno-Adriatico which is nothing short of star-studded, but Porte believes that there's still plenty of "really decent bike riders"; Robert Gesink (Blanco), Andreas Kloden (RadioShack-Leopard), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE), Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) are all racing, and in any case a race of its status is never easy.

Biggest challenge, not the Col d'Eze

The way Porte describes the two key GC stages; Stage 5 with its summit finish on La Montagne de Lure, and the final stage time trial up the Col d'Eze you'd think they were formalities. Porte knows both climbs like the back of his hand, he lives in Monaco, and particularly the ascent of the latter he told Cycling Central he would be "more familiar with than anyone in this year's race". His bullishness suggests his form isn't something that's troubling him, that at least he's on top of.

But it's the uncontrollables that Porte most fears. Short and a featherweight, he's not exactly the ideal build to navigate the cross-winds and echelon style of racing that the race generally deals with in its traverse south-east across France. Porte was lucky a bad crash at speed in last year's race wasn't more serious, and had an up and down run in 2011 while at Saxo.

"I don't really have happy memories of this race," says Porte and laughs. "But it's nice to come here and try and erase those memories. The thing about Paris-Nice is just making sure you stay alert and you don't switch off. There's always two teams ready to put the race in the gutter around every corner. There's always a bit of a surprise in store on every stage.

"I'm lucky because we've got some good guys here to look after me on the flat so that makes things easier."

If all goes well and Porte is in contention come the Col d'Eze time trial he fancies his chances. The undulating 9.6km mountain time trial decided the 2012 edition with Wiggins overcoming Dutchman Lieuwe Westra narrowly thanks to a marginally better effort.

"As I said I know that climb (Col d'Eze) better than anybody else here," said Porte. "It's in my backyard I've done it quite often. I wouldn't say I like it, but I will say if it comes down to that, bring it on."

The 2013 edition of Paris-Nice begins March 3 in Houilles, with a 2.9km prologue time trial.

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