Can Richie Porte win the Tour de France?
Among the Australian cycling fraternity, it has probably been the most asked question leading up to this year’s Grand Départ in Düsseldorf. And until July 23 in Paris, it will continue to be.
The short answer is yes, but before we go there, a few words of caution.
Of the four main favourites - Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Porte himself - the latter stands out as the only one yet to step onto the final podium at a Grand Tour. Froome and Contador have seven Grand Tour podiums apiece and 10 Grand Tour victories between them including five Tours de France; and Quintana has six podiums and two Grand Tour wins, and has twice finished runner-up at Le Tour.
The fact is, if you ride two or more Grand Tours in the same season, one as leader and the other/s as a domestique, it messes with your head.
Interestingly, Porte has actually one more Grand Tour appearance under his belt than Quintana, having started 10 and finished nine. But unlike the Colombian all bar three were ridden at the service of someone other than he, which makes him the least experienced of the aforementioned four. So when Cadel Evans told Cycling Central contributor Sophie Smith in 2015 that “Richie’s had a few opportunities to prove himself and he’s been really good but he hasn’t been consistent”, it’s worth taking those comments with a grain of salt because until last year, he never got the chance to experience outright leadership with no strings attached. Froome and Quintana have been the undisputed leaders of their teams since 2013, and for Contador its been that way since 2007, the year he won his first Tour.
Memories of Porte attempting to lead a team at the Giro in 2014 and 2015 while also thinking about riding for Froome in July act as a case in point that being a leader at one Grand Tour and a domestique at another is difficult to the point of being almost impossible. Alejandro Valverde is perhaps the best exponent of that, most notably finishing third at the Giro d’Italia (as leader) and 6th and 12th (as domestique) at the Tour and Vuelta a España last season. But this is a man with 21 Grand Tours under his belt and even with his preternatural endurance, his final week performances in the latter two events were less than optimal, even though his leader Quintana finished runner-up at the Tour and won the Vuelta. The fact is, if you ride two or more Grand Tours in the same season, one as leader and the other/s as a domestique, it messes with your head; it’s hard enough doing the double in a singular capacity, as Quintana may well discover in his Giro-Tour podium project this year.
So, when you consider the 32-year-old from Launceston has had just the one opportunity to lead a team at a Grand Tour with no further duties required at another, and that opportunity was the Tour and he finished fifth overall, his BMC Racing team had every reason to back him for another few seasons. In any given year there are only ever five guys who can win La Grande Boucle (or any other Grand Tour, for that matter) and at present Porte is one of them. His once obvious bad days were perhaps a product of the role switching required at Team Sky, unable to be singularly focused on one Grand Tour and the confidence that comes with a team that allows him to do that and unequivocally supports such an objective.
Judging from his results this season, Porte and BMC have every reason to believe he can win this year’s Tour, though it’s a tad too far to say he’s the favourite, as Froome told SBS in an interview before the start. That’s the Kenyan-born Brit attempting to lull him into a false sense of security, which, after the mugging he got on the final day of the Critérium du Dauphiné, won’t happen again. If he does win, he’ll be the first since Oscar Pereiro in 2006 to go from having never made a Grand Tour podium to winning the biggest bike race of all.
It’ll be remarkable, but certainly not unfathomable.