Last year must have been particularly brutal for Richie Porte. It was his third year after leaving the comfort of Sky and striking out on his own to become a grand tour leader at BMC. But that independence has resulted in diminishing returns- with only a 33 percent completion rate for the Tour after crashing out during the last two years. This year, almost no one is talking about him as being a contender for yellow, showing just how far his star has faded.
Meanwhile, his erstwhile teammate Geraint Thomas, although always talking up his own grand tour ambitions, stayed loyal to the team and its mission of supporting Froome. And with a reputation of crashing out equivalent to Porte, I think it is fair to say that no one thought that Thomas was capable or would have the opportunity to take a Tour victory. However, through the fortuitousness of an allergy medication overdose and hard Giro on Froome’s legs, Thomas was provided a sliver of opportunity, and grabbed it, somehow defeating his crash prone curse in the process to become a Tour champion.
Thomas, the rider that played it safe by staying at home, has now joined the pantheon of greats who have won the Tour, while Porte, the athletically-gifted, once-thought-to-be future Tour winner, left the nest to chase his own success only to become the Gil Gunderson, the perpetually down-on-his-luck Simpson’s character, of the peloton.
The question is whether their story has already reached its climax, with this year’s Tour as an epilogue, or whether there is still a twist in store in this tale. Thomas comes into this year’s Tour as the defending champion, with another opportunity due to Froome’s injury, but with a young, presumed-to-be generational talent in Bernal eclipsing him as a favorite. Porte arrives in Brussels as a 34 year old rider, making this year his last feasible opportunity for Tour success
Why Geraint Thomas May Be Able to Pull off Back-to-Back Tour Victories
My prognostication powers have taken a hit lately. For me everything started going downhill after Trump won the election. You see, early in the election campaign I put a $100 bet against Trump winning. At the time, the odds were ridiculously low- but I figured even if I only made $10, it was free money as there was no chance that he’d first win the Republican nomination and then win the general election. Of course, I was wrong and my loss of a $100 was the most insignificant consequence of that win. My issue was that I was basing my bet on past indications and had failed to see that the entire landscape had changed.
I made a similar mistake with Geraint Thomas last year. Through the entirety of the Tour, I didn’t think that Geraint Thomas was going to win. Not when he won Stage 11 on La Rosiere and took the yellow jersey. Nor when he consolidated his lead the next day on Alpe d’Huez. Nor when he still had the jersey before the last mountain stage. Even on the processional into Paris, I thought a strong gust of wind was going to blow him off his bike even as he was raising his champagne glass. And this year, after he started the season a little bloated and happy while still riding the Tour champion euphoria and finished his preparation for the Tour by crashing out of the Suisse, I again don’t think he has a chance to repeat. That almost certainly means that he’s going to win.
First, INEOS, even sans Froome, is still the strongest team in the race. While Thomas may not even be the favorite for the Tour on his own team-- that honor would go to a 22 year old whippersnapper who has never led a team at a grand tour before, he’ll benefit from their train. And while Bernal is getting most of the attention, Thomas is the defending champion who has actually led the team before. Thomas is not going to be nervous like Bernal. Thomas is going to have the loyalty of the teammates who he has ridden with for many years. And Thomas is British on a British team.
While Thomas’ lead up to the Tour has not been ideal, we all remember what happened to Primoz Roglic-- the hot and in form rider at the Giro. With a hard and mountainous Tour on tap, the lack of racing miles in Thomas’ legs could be a benefit rather than a disadvantage.
And other than his own inexperienced teammate, the competition at this Tour is high quantity but not high quality— there’s no Froome, no Dumoulin, no Roglic, no Carapaz. Quite a few of the riders already have a Giro in their legs, including Nibali, Landa and Simon Yates. This is a field that Thomas can beat.
Why Geraint Thomas Probably Won’t Win the Tour Again
Let’s be honest here-- Thomas’ victory last year feels more like the perfect confluence of circumstances rather than the breakout performance of the next multi-Tour winner. Not since 2013, when Cadel Evans went into the Tour as the defending champion, has it felt like the defending champ shouldn’t really be listed in the group of favorites. If it was hard last year to even envision Thomas as a single Tour winner, it’s doubly hard to see him as a twofer, joining the ranks of the greats who have won multiple Tours: Froome, Contador, Indurain, Lemond, Hinault, Merckx, and Fignon.
There was recently a quote on The Cycling Podcast about what would happen if one of the French GC riders actually won the Tour-- that essentially their career would be over because they would have so much celebrity and attention that they would be unable to dedicate themselves to do the training that is necessary to maintain their status. That sort of feels like where we are at with Thomas-- he rightfully enjoyed the hell out of the experience of being a Tour winner, and as such came into this season sluggishly. Combine that with a season that has been cut short by crashes, and it would take a miracle for another Tour victory.
Why This Just Might Be Ol’ Richie’s Year
To paraphrase Gil Gunderson, things are finally lookin’ up for Ol’ Richie. Reading an interview with Porte in the Tasmanian Examiner, it’s hard not to make the comparison between Gil Gunderson and Porte.
Just look at these quotes from Ol’ Richie:
“I do feel it owes me a good one”
“I don’t want another August spent in bed. I just want to get to Paris in one piece.”
“It would just be nice to get past stage 9 where it has ended for me in the last couple of years.”
“And having had the season I’ve had so far it’s been disappointing but I know I’ve done the work on and off the bike. I’ve dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s and I’m hopeful that this year can be my year.”
Poor bloke. He’s not far off from saying, “Can I please win the Tour? Please say I can. Ol’ Richie needs this.” And here’s the thing-- in a world where Geraint Thomas is a Tour champion, there’s no reason that Porte can’t also get a lick. As we have oft discussed- Porte is athletically-gifted and has the physiology to be a Tour contender. He is tiny, but powerful uphill with a great watts-to-kilos ratio. He’s an excellent time-trialler, and even though there’s not much opportunity for time-trialing this year, it makes the individual time trial stage that much more important. On paper, he’s the best GC contender TT’er at the Tour this year. While we’ve also routinely blamed Porte’s poor GC results on his psychology, this year there’s no Froome at the race, who’s always been a bit of a bugaboo for Porte and gotten into his head. There’s no cobbles to cause Porte to have night sweats. And there’s almost no attention being placed on Porte in the leadup to the Tour-- he’s not being touted as one of the main contenders. Except for Willunga, he’s been relatively quiet this year-- but I don’t see how that is not a good thing. Winning all of the stage races never equaled grand tour success for Porte in the past so going with a more laid back approach to the Tour seems like a valid strategy. Let’s just hope he doesn’t look at Stage 9, which has enough sharp ascents, descents and twisty roads to give him a nervous breakdown.
Three Random Predictions
1. Caleb Ewan will be the dominant sprinter this year. If you haven’t looked yet, let me tell you that this isn’t the typical Tour with sprint stages that will be straightforward bunch sprints. Even the sprint stages have climbs and uphill finishes that will likely favor Ewan’s diminutive stature. I predict that he wins at least 3 stages this year.
2. Alejandro Valverde will be the best placed Movistar rider on GC. Valverde just signed with Movistar for 2 more years, while Landa and Quintana are changing teams next season. There’s no chance that the harmony that Max Sciandri supposedly brought to the team at the Giro will reign at the Tour. Look for Valverde to score a victory for the elderly.
3. Tejay Van Garderen will finish in the Top 10. If I’m going to throw Porte some love, I might as well through Tejay some too. However, all of the years that Van Garderen has done well at the Tour-- 2012 (5th), 2014(5th), and 2015 (was 3rd when he DNF’d)-- he did the Dauphine first. This year he completed the Dauphine, finishing in 2nd. Thus, Tejay’s a shoe in for a top 10. No one can argue with this logic.