• If Richie Porte is to win the Tour, his team-mates need to be around him more often, in greater numbers, and for longer, argues Anthony Tan. (AFP)Source: AFP
The way BMC Racing rode the first major mountain stage of this year's Tour sends all the wrong signals to not just their rivals, but their leader, too, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
9 Jul 2017 - 3:37 AM  UPDATED 9 Jul 2017 - 4:11 AM

A few days before the race began on July 1, their general manager Jim Ochowicz declared a unified objective at their opening press conference in Düsseldorf: the goal was to win the Tour de France with Richie Porte.

He added that only if the opportunity arose, and the situation was favourable for the Tasmanian, would they also chase stage wins with riders like Olympic road champion and stage winner at the previous two Tours, Greg Van Avermaet. The take-out was that such a scenario would come deep into the race, perhaps when Porte was in a Tour-winning position and had ample support, or on a transitional stage that did not impact the overall classification.

Porte and his team need to look in their own backyard to see what they've got, and calculate if it'll be enough to take on Team Sky, who, as each day unfolds, are looking no less strong than they did in any of the previous four Tours they've won.

However on the first of two back-to-back legs in the Jura mountains Porte described as the "first real big shake up", the 32-year-old from Launceston essentially rode the final climb unassisted. Damiano Caruso was with him on the Category 1 ascent of the Côte de la Combe de Laisia-Les Molunes, though he was at the back of the groupe maillot jaune while the Australian was at the front, nestled behind the serried ranks of Team Sky who, despite doing the lion's share throughout the 187.5 kilometre stage, was still five men strong.

Okay, the GC battle turned out to be a stalemate. Yet in allowing Van Avermaet to roam free on the very first major mountain stage, followed by Nicolas Roche, Porte found himself without two key lieutenants for much of the day. How could BMC Racing have been so sure nothing was going to happen - and what if it did? And in the equally important psychological battle, what message does it send out to his rivals?

To me, the message is thus: we're not as committed to Richie Porte as Team Sky is to Chris Froome.

To rub salt in the wound, neither Van Avermaet or Roche profited from their considerable expenditure of energy. Wanty-Groupe Gobert's Guillaume Martin snatched the final podium place from the Irishman, ostensibly BMC Racing's road captain, as he led the groupe maillot jaune over the line at Station des Rousses, 50 seconds behind stage winner Lilian Calmejane of Direct Energie. Two Pro Continental teams trumping an outfit that, from the salary of one or two of their star riders alone, would be commensurate with either team's entire annual budget.

Not only that, both Van Avermaet or Roche will be left depleted for what will certainly be a crucial, and most importantly, decisive, stage Sunday: over 181.5km, seven mountain passes including three hors catégorie will need to be traversed before a daredevil descent into Chambéry. "I went really deep. I really gave it everything," admitted Roche after Saturday's stage. Echoed Van Avermaet: "I gave it everything to be in the breakaway and make the race hard. I went all in today."

Surely, if you were contending for the ultimate prize in this Grande Boucle, you would want numbers for what's ahead...

Until Saturday, Porte remarked many times over how his team have been "absolutely incredible" in protecting him and, with confidence building, how he believed Team Sky was not as strong as last year when Froome won for a third time; the Kenyan-born Brit a winner in Paris with a 4'05 margin over Romain Bardet and 4'21 in front of Nairo Quintana.

Perhaps a reason why they tried to boss the bunch like they did five days ago to La Planche des Belles Filles, even though it wasn't part of the original plan. Froome later said he and his team were only too happy to oblige, and complimented BMC Racing for their efforts: "It showed initiative; it showed intent." Three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond was less praiseworthy. "They're getting a free ride, Sky," LeMond, working on the Tour as an analyst for Eurosport, told Reuters journalist Julien Pretot after the fifth stage.

"They're racing smart. Let BMC do it, let the sprinters' teams do it. They're saving the team for the right time of the race."

The right time of the race was not then, but now. And now, Porte and his team need to look in their own backyard to see what they've got, and calculate if it'll be enough to take on Team Sky, who, as each day unfolds, are looking no less strong than they did in any of the previous four Tours they've won.

"I like the atmosphere and the way BMC Racing Team operates, so I am sure this is where I want to be," Porte said two days before the race start, when it was announced he had extended his contract with the team he joined in 2016, following four years at Team Sky. At this moment, I wonder whether he still feels this way.

With 10 riders within a minute of each other the Tour is far from being over. But if Porte wants to win this year, or any other year for that matter, he cannot ride alone like he did on Saturday.