In-form Richie Porte re-affirmed his place as Team Sky’s second-in-command after storming to Paris-Nice victory with time trial success on the Col d’Eze.
Porte’s second stage win of this year’s race earned him the yellow jersey in a repeat of his success on the same mountain in 2013, and saw the Australian bounce back from a crash the previous day in perfect style.
And having surged to the top of the UCI WorldTour rankings, Porte, who has won stages of every stage race he has started this season, proved he is ready for a shot at the Team Sky leadership at a Grand Tour, after illness robbed him of the opportunity at the Giro d’Italia last season.
The Tasmanian-born rider, runner-up at the season-opening Tour Down Under, moved up to second overall at Paris-Nice by winning stage four on the Croix de Chaubouret summit finish, but both he and team-mate Geraint Thomas, at the time third in the GC, crashed on stage six as Tony Gallopin soloed into the race lead.
But Porte responded with his fifth victory of the season on the Col d’Eze – with the overall classification boosting that tally to six – to ramp up his preparations for the Giro d’Italia in style.
The 30-year-old now has two overall victories at Paris-Nice – so often seen as a ‘mini Tour’ – on his palmares, though May’s Giro will place renewed focus on whether Porte has the consistency to lead Team Sky over a three-week Grand Tour, rather than a one-week stage race.
Arguably the most super of super-domestiques when it came to leading Chris Froome to 2013 Tour de France success, and a major contender when it comes to week-long races, is the time ripe for Porte to step up another level?
This time last year, it looked as though Porte was on the brink of doing just that until illness curtailed his Tirreno-Adriatico and then proceeded to totally disrupt his season – costing him a place on the Giro d’Italia’s Belfast start line in the process.
Now, however, Porte has come back fitter, stronger and fresher, and in fine form, too.
In Geraint Thomas – another man capable of becoming a regular leader for Team Sky – Porte has a right-hand man with whom he seems to have forged a seriously strong partnership. Thomas’ attack on the Croix de Chaubouret laid the foundations for Porte’s race-winning acceleration, which only the Welshman could match. That followed a dominant performance at the Volta ao Algarve, when the pair picked off individual stage wins, riding together in the lead group before accelerating to victory, while Thomas also claimed the overall.
Porte’s all-round ability is undoubted, and was proven with strong efforts against the clock at Paris-Nice and then his mountain-top victory on the Chaubouret. The Giro d’Italia, with its 60km time trial, could be an ideal hunting ground for the Australian national time trial champion and a strong overall finish is certainly on the cards.
Victory is likely to prove a step too far at this stage, particularly with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) eyeing a Giro-Tour double and Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-QuickStep) keen to improve on consecutive runners-up spots – but a challenge for the podium is within Porte’s reach.
Porte’s hopes of a podium finish at the 2013 Tour, when riding in support of Froome, evaporated the day after claiming second on the mountain stage to Ax-3 Domaines as the entire Sky team, Froome aside, felt the effects of their previous efforts on a difficult day..
There is a question mark over Porte’s consistency as a leader through a three-week race, with a stomach bug at last year’s Tour seeing him tumble down the GC in the Alps when he was placed second overall at the halfway stage of the race, having been promoted to Team Sky leader after Froome’s abandonment.
This year Porte will have a chance to put those questions to bed and while Thomas won’t race the Giro, instead focusing on the Classics before likely forming part of Froome’s Tour de France squad, Porte will be supported by a fiercely strong line-up. Sebastian Henao, Philip Deignan and Leopold Konig have all been touted as potential team-mates in Italy, and Nicolas Roche proved last year with Tinkoff-Saxo that he can be a valuable asset in both the Giro and Tour if Sky call on him in the same way his previous employers did.
Challenging Contador over three weeks is likely to prove a step too far – it was, after all, beyond even Froome during their enthralling battle at the Vuelta a Espana last year – but the form Porte is showing at the moment is certainly good enough to merit team leadership in Italy and, if he can find the formula to hold that form through the race, then expect him to be among the leading riders at the season’s opening Grand Tour.
Paris-Nice 2015: stage seven (ITT) – result
1) Richie Porte (AUS) – Team Sky – 20.23
2) Simon Spilak (SVN) – Katusha +13”
3) Rui Costa (POR) – Lampre-Merida +24”
4) Tony Martin (GER) – Etixx-QuickStep +29”
5) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Etixx-QuickStep – ST
6) Andrew Talansky (USA) – Cannondale-Garmin +37”
7) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +39”
8) Ion Izagirre (ESP) – Movistar +50”
9) Tim Wellens (BEL) – Lotto-Soudal +54”
10) Gorka Izagirre (ESP) – Movistar +55”
1) Richie Porte (AUS) – Team Sky – 29.10.41hrs
2) Michal Kwiatkowski (POL) – Etixx-QuickStep +30”
3) Simon Spilak (SVN) – Katusha – ST
4) Rui Costa (POR) – Lampre-Merida
5) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +41”
6) Tony Gallopin (FRA) – Lotto-Soudal +1.03
7) Jakob Fuglsang (DEN) – Astana +1.05
8) Rafael Valls (ESP) – Lampre-Merida +1.24
9) Gorka Izagirre (ESP) – Movistar +1.38
10) Tim Wellens (BEL) – Lotto-Soudal +2.18
29) Simon Yates (GBR) – Orica-GreenEDGE +19.03
31) Ben Swift (GBR) – Team Sky +20.39