The Tour is not over. Vincenzo Nibali has not yet won. Because so long as there's fight left in Richie Porte, there's still a contest, writes Anthony Tan.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

Can you win the Tour de France this year?

"Oh, I mean, anything's possible, isn't it?"

Well, that was the obvious question to ask Richie Porte, Team Sky's leader apparent, on the rest day in Besançon.

After the most topsy turvy Tour start we've experienced in the last quarter of a century - when was the last time you saw the top two favourites crash and burn before the first rest day? - absolutely, anything is possible, as Porte says, and that includes winning La Grande Boucle.

Of course, the question we really want answered is: Will he win the Tour de France this year?

"If you said to me, 'You'll be sitting second on GC before the first rest day', I would've been thrilled to bits," Porte said on Tuesday, at his team hotel in Besançon.

2 minutes and 23 seconds separates race leader Vincenzo Nibali from Porte.

Given we have not yet hit the first real mountain range - that comes Friday, on Stage 13 - the gap is certainly closable.

To win, he does not need Nibali to crash out of the race, like his team leader Chris Froome did on Stage 5 or as Alberto Contador did en route to La Planche des Belles Filles, for before too long, we will be approaching the Tasmanian's favoured terrain. "I'm looking forward to these longer climbs," he told Cycling Central host Mike Tomalaris; a sentiment he has not wavered from ever since inheriting the leadership at Sky with seemingly casual aplomb.

However, just as Porte is eyeing Nibali, those clustered behind him are making furtive glances at his place on the classement général.

Just 1 minute and 45 seconds separates Porte from the tenth place of Belkin's Bauke Mollema. And 11th to 15th on GC are less than two minutes back from the Dutchman.

"I had hoped for a little bit more," said Mollema after finishing 1'06 behind Nibali on Stage 10, "but the differences are still small. I keep looking at things day by day. Hopefully, I improve some more. The stages with the really long climbs have yet to come."

Added Belkin sport director Merijn Zeeman: "What happened with Contador could also happen to us. That's why we prepare ourselves meticulously and live from day to day. We must make sure that we stay out of trouble."

So far, Porte has managed to do that, and expended less energy than Nibali and his Astana team. "The most stressful part of it is behind us now," he said, noting Stage 2 to Sheffield and the cobblestoned fifth leg to Arenberg as the two days that concerned him most. "They're the ones I lost most sleep over, more than the Pyrenees or Alps."

We must concede, however, that to date, Nibali is at a plane above his peers. "He's of another level, nobody seems to be able to follow him," Lotto-Belisol leader Jurgen Van den Broeck, currently 11th overall and 4'18 behind Nibali, said after the stage to La Planche des Belles Filles.

Other than form, there seems to be another reason behind it.

"He's not unbeatable, of course, but he's proving to be really strong at the moment, and up to date he enjoyed weather conditions which suit him perfectly," Movistar's Alejandro Valverde, third on GC at 2'47, and just 14 seconds behind Porte, said Tuesday. "Out of all of us up-front (on GC), he's the one who suffers least with (the) rain."

Porte agreed. "I think one of the biggest factors this race has been the weather."

"If the forecast is correct and good weather shows up for the remainder of the race," said Valverde, whose freshness should become apparent in days to come, "theoretically, I should be stronger with sun and good temperatures. I felt well in these last days, but those are conditions I don't like at all.

"After Liège, I only did five days' racing: three at the Route du Sud, then the Spanish Championships - (so) my form should stay the same, if not improve, until the end of the Tour."

Said Van den Broeck: "It's not over yet. There are still five mountain stages to come and one time trial."

Seems like a statement of the bleeding obvious, and it is, but it's nevertheless worth emphasising: for those who want to win, the hardest is still to come.

"There's still all the Alps, all the Pyrenees left... In short, all the big mountains," Valverde said.

"Any stage could be good to gain time or lose it. Leaving aside Wednesday and Thursday, which should be more suited for breakaways, we will have stages where anybody can collapse and lose all chance (of winning). We'll try to attack, but always keep our minds cold - not one of our rivals is weak, and attacking for the sake of attacking is nonsense. We must do it when we can hurt our rivals."

Yes, Valverde is a bit like Contador in a way; less premeditated than Nibali, more unpredictable, a little more erratic, though full of treacherous cunning. "Our moment to feel more comfortable on the road and profit from it should come now," he said. "Let's hope it happens."

And, while Porte is less prepared as a leader than Froome or Nibali or Contador or Valverde, he is nonetheless prepared to go the distance.

Take away the bad day he encountered on Stage 9 of last year's Tour to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, where he lost one second short of 18 minutes, and for a moment imagine he finished in the same group as Froome. Instead of being 19th on GC, he would've finished in the top fifteen - all while riding as a domestique, and doing nothing to preserve his own place on the leaderboard.

Asked by Tomalaris if the 13-and-a-half-hour, 403 kilometre-long training ride he did last December - on his birthday, no less! - will put him in good stead for this year's Tour, he smiled wryly. "No. I probably look more (what I do) at home in Monaco, riding up the mountains, when you're on your hands and knees after five hours and going up the (Col de la) Madone to finish it off... I think those are the rides that have really helped me, more than anything."

Just briefly, allow me tell you another story his former coach Andrew Christie-Johnston recalled about the young Richie Porte, when he was 23 or 24 years old, and used the 18 kilometre brute that is Tasmania's Mount Wellington, rather than the Madone, to test himself.

"Back then, around those years (2008-2009), his workload was just phenomenal. We then put him on those (long) climbs in Tasmania. When Cadel (Evans) had done the Tour of Tasmania (in 1999) and won a stage on Mount Wellington, I have all those times; you have a look at what Richie could do, the fact that he could just destroy Cadel's times up those climbs was a pretty impressive feat," gushed Christie-Johnston.

"He was about a minute fifteen (seconds) quicker than what Cadel actually did. And Cadel simply rode away from everyone (at the 1999 Tour of Tasmania); Neil Stephens stuck with him for a long time, but Cadel just rode away from everyone. And Richie just didn't do this once - he did it on multiple occasions. And on one occasion he did it after a 200K ride."

"I'm a little guy," says Porte, "but I'm a bit of a fighter - and there's plenty of fight left in me."

So long as there's fight left in Richie, there's still a contest.

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