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Richie Porte - Tour de France Favourite?

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I come not to praise Richie Porte, nor to bury him.  I’m just very intrigued.

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Nineteen Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

I like to write with an opinion. I think it is the gambler in me. I’d much rather start with a strong view and argue my perspective. Sometimes, I’ve drafted something, changed my opinion and re-written it from the opposite position. This, along with the use of subordinate clauses, (oh, and parenthetical clauses, and way too many, like, commas, and informal speech) is part of what marks me as an amateurish writer. Still, it allows me to write full articles in the time I have free. On Richie Porte, though, I have a question, and no clear opinion. The question is very simple – does he deserve to be vying for favouritism with Froome for the Tour?

Let’s start with the market. According to the bookies, following the Giro and the Dauphine, Froome is still favourite, at around 11/8 (2.38) for the Tour, with Porte second-favourite at around 7/4 (2.75). So, he’s not favourite, but he’s one of two given a very good chance of winning. You can get 8/1 on Quintanta, and 16/1 or better on everyone else. I think that’s about fair. Here’s why:

The case for Porte

He’s become such a fancied rider because he’s had the best build-up to the Tour of any contender, bar none. Other than an adequate ride (21st) in the Cadel Evans race, he’s focused exclusively on week-long stage races, all of them at world tour level. He won two stages and the overall in the Tour Down Under, one stage of Paris-Nice, in which he finished fifth, the overall in Romandie, and a stage in the Dauphine, in which he finished second. His six world tour victories mean that he’s already enjoyed, by one measure, his most successful season ever.

Those who view him as a possible winner will point at last year’s Tour, too. On stage two, Porte punctured 6km from the finish, endured a slooooooow wheel change (from a neutral vehicle) and lost 1 minute 45 seconds. He also lost over two minutes to Froome on the stage 13 time trial, which appeared to be due to misjudging his energy and going off too soon. An uncharacteristic error, if so. That, though, was basically it – Porte minimised losses on the climbing time trial in stage 18, and stuck with the bigs on the mountain stages. He ended the race 5th, having conceded 5.17 to Froome but just 1.12 to second-placed Bardet – less than he lost in the stage two crash.

In his first year since after spending four as Froome’s lieutenant at Sky, then, Porte proved himself a rival to be reckoned with. He has backed that up with a spring in which he’s climbed as well as anyone. He’s also turned things around in the time trial. After a 10th in Paris-Nice, on a shorter course, he took the overall in Romandie with second in the TT (beating Froome by 38 seconds over 18km) and then beat not only the GC boys but Tony Martin as well to win the Dauphine TT, this time beating Froome by 37 seconds over 24km. Interestingly, he’ll also go into this Tour with Nicolas Roche as his climbing lieutenant, pulled from Froome’s train. Sky won’t be appreciably weakened, but BMC will be strengthened.

The case against Porte

Everything above is right, but there are holes in the argument. First of all, the best Porte has ever done in a Grand Tour is 5th. He’s 32. There are some mitigating circumstances, but he’s 32. When I was 32 (not that long ago) I got my first grey hairs and started making an involuntary “ooh” noise when I sat down. It is pretty hard to see him waiting until now to begin bypassing the other two steps of the podium and winning a race against the champion and three-time winner (to say nothing of the other multiple-GT winners in the field).

He has had few genuine chances, and these have been seasoned with some bad luck stories (the crash in Jesolo on the 2015 Giro, a rare chance at leadership whilst with Sky, as well as last year’s puncture) but there’s no guarantee these won’t happen again – at some point, luck becomes a skill. Moreover, it is easy to say that Porte rode with the bigs after losing time early; we will never know if Froome, Bardet et al could have dropped him had they made serious attempts. Between his crash and a sub-par TT, he was finished as a threat to Sky before the race hit the Alps. Here, too, we see a chink in Porte’s armour, as he isn't the sort of rider to pull back time in chunks. Not only has he never made a podium on a grand tour, he’s never won a stage. Not one. There are going to be lots of very good climbers in this race, with Froome, Bardet and Quintana leading the group who’ll be desperate to shed the Tasmanian from their wheels on the steepest slopes, and it isn't impossible that they'll succeed.

His best chance, therefore, is to try and take some time from Froome and the rest in the TT and stay with them in the mountains, if he can. Froome, of course, has twice won Olympic medals as a time triallist and is very far from a straightforward mountain goat. Porte fans looking to this year’s Giro for hope should remember that there are only 38km of TT in this year’s Tour, and the disparity between Dumoulin and Quintana in skintight suits is far greater than that between Porte and Froome, even if you believe Porte has now outstripped his former leader. Nobody said this was going to be easy.

The context of the race

Froome and Quintana were the favourites coming into this season, and we can’t view Porte in a vacuum. Part of the reason he’s a likelier winner is that his main competitors are looking vulnerable. Quintana lost a Giro he was expected by most (me included) to win comfortably. Not only did Dumoulin beat him, but he only put 9 seconds into an aging Nibali. He might have come into that race undercooked, but it is hard to imagine him improving in a second grand tour.

Froome, meanwhile, is an enigma. He’s only interested in one race, and it hasn’t started yet, but seeing him knocked off the podium by Dan Martin in the Dauphine (a race he won in preparation for all of his Tour wins) was startling. Froome will go into the Tour without a single victory, stage or GC, this season. That last happened in 2012, when he was riding for Sir Bradley, back before Wiggo became a Knight Commander of the British Empire. I’ll leave others to speculate on whether fame, fatherhood, Team Sky chaos or simply racing luck and elusive form are to blame for Froome's results, but they are disquieting, and it isn't certain that he'll turn it around.

More than anything Porte controls, Froome's form is critical to determining the winner of the year's biggest prize.

Richie Porte – Tour de France winner?

Where, then, are we left with Richie Porte? I see a rider who has shown the best form of his career over the last twelve months and is apparently still improving both as a climber and as a time trialler. He’s got a good team working for him, has experienced GT leadership, and can hope to see his biggest rivals failing to reach their best form. On everything that’s happened since stage 14 of last year’s Tour, he’s the form pick.

I also see a rider who excels at everything you need to be a GC contender, but doesn’t have a single dominant skill. I see a man with limited experience at the very top of his sport and a history of bad luck at the wrong moments. I see a race with many, many good riders, and a parcours some distance away from that which BMC would have chosen. I see Froome improving.

Can Richie Porte win the Tour? Yes. Am I more bullish on his chances than ever before? Certainly. Am I excited to see him try? You bet.

Will he win the Tour? I think that he…. won’t.