Richie Porte produced his trademark best to win stage two of the Santos Tour Down Under from Stirling to the hilltop finish at Paracombe and also take the overall race lead on Wednesday on Staging Connections Stage 2.
But there was far more to the Australian’s performance in the 148.5km stage than that it led to his first win of the year in only his second road race of the season, and to a prime position to defend the race leader’s ochre jersey all the way to Sunday’s finish in Adelaide.
By winning and reacting as he did to his winning ride afterwards, Porte, 31, gave every indication that he has developed further into the assured, committed and confident calm-under-pressure person that he revealed himself to be in last year’s Tour de France. In that, Porte finished fifth overall, despite the set-backs of a flat tyre with five kilometres to go on stage two costing him 1 minute 45 seconds, and his stage 12 crash into a crowd-blocked motor bike on Mont Ventoux while on the offensive with the eventual British Tour winner Chris Froome and Dutchman Bauke Mollema who both rode into the back of him and fell.
Such misfortune has been frustratingly too frequent for his and his supporters’ liking in a professional career that began in 2010 when he finished seventh overall in the Giro d’Italia.
But the Tasmanian’s final place and comportment throughout last year’s Tour to handle the misfortune that probably cost him a podium finish was nothing short of impressive. It gave every indication that perhaps he can become a real threat to Froome – if not, win the Tour.
However, the Porte that we saw at Paracombe on Wednesday – albeit a far cry from the pressure cooker environment of the Tour – showed strong signs that he has grown further.
Sure, the win at Paracombe meant a great deal to Porte and his BMC team whose collective showing was also impressive; as will a victory on the next hill finish at Willunga on Saturday on stage five which he has won the last three years and a career first overall win on Sunday.
Porte confirmed that on Wednesday after he blasted away all his rivals on the steep and final 1.5km climb to Paracombe and won the stage by 16 seconds from the Spaniard Gorka Izaguirre (Movistar) and Colombian Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott), while his Australian BMC teammate Rohan Dennis led home a group of 17 riders at 19 seconds to take fourth place.
“It’s incredible to wear the jersey in the biggest race in Australia,” a smiling Porte said after stepping off the race podium. “I’d love to win it [overall], there are a few hard days to come, but I enjoyed today and the work the BMC guys did for me was just absolutely incredible.”
Richie Porte: “I knew I had to back myself”
Stopping Porte now will take a mighty effort judging by his form and that of his team – from rookie professional and Australian champion Miles Scotson to Dennis, Switzerland’s Danilo Wyss, Frenchman Amael Moinard, Spaniard Francisco Ventoso and Italian Damiano Caruso.
Orica-Scott head sports director Matt White conceded that after stage two which will see Porte lead going into stage three on Thursday with 20 seconds on Izaguirre in second, 22 second on Chaves in third and 24 seconds on Australian Jay McCarthy (BORA-hansgrohe).
“The race is not over but it is certainly going to be difficult to overtake Richie,” said White.
“I said whoever wins this stage is always going to be pretty hard to dethrone. That certainly hasn’t changed. I said before the race started, ‘he is the guy to beat.’ And he certainly is.”
But the way White spoke of Porte smacked of his recognition that the Porte his team – and every other team in this WorldTour opener – are dealing with is a more dangerous opponent than the one they faced before, even when winning some of the world’s biggest one week tours like Paris-Nice (2013, 2015), the Volta a Catalunya (2015) and Giro del Trentino (2015).
How so? For starters, BMC, the team that Australian Cadel Evans raced for when he won the Tour in 2011, would not have already declared Porte will be their Tour leader this year had he not convinced them – and most importantly their own riders – that he has what it takes.
Then, besides his performance on Wednesday showing he is in great form (despite the uncertainty he spoke of after missing the recent Australian road championships last Sunday week), it confirms that Porte has prepared excellently in the off season at a team training camp in Denia, Spain and at home Launceston, Tasmania since crashing out of the Olympic Games road race and breaking his collar bone. He is clearly driven by a want to win big.
“I knew I had to back myself, I knew I had the form to do it,” Porte said of his winning ride on Wednesday for which he said he has prepared on similarly steep hills in Tasmania.
Poignantly, Porte has also showed his assuredness this week by openly speaking of taking Wednesday’s stage by the scruff before he had even turned a competitive pedal stroke – and to boot, of winning stage five to Willunga for a fourth time and winning the race overall.
And throughout it all, the mere mention of his history of bad luck in races does not trigger the slightest ruffle of anxiety, angst or desire to shut down the topic as some athletes might.
When asked, Porte can reflect on those moments and accept them for what they, rather than symptoms of a malaise that an athlete – or any person in any walk of life – may fear that by discussing past incidents of misfortune they will run the risk of them continuing.
“It would be great just to finish off the race with plain sailing, but I don’t expect that,” Porte said with a wry smile. “There are 130 other guys in the peloton who want to make things as difficult as possible. But that’s where we have the team to control things. There are some stressful days coming up, so we won’t be counting our chickens until they’re hatched.”
And showing he can keep it all in perspective, Porte finished by saying: “It’s just racing.”