Bergerac: Richie Porte still has what it takes to lead a team in a grand tour and compete for overall classification victories, his Sky team boss David Brailsford believes.
The reassuring support for Porte from Brailsford, the Sky team principal, came as this year’s Tour de France reached within two days of its completion in Paris on Sunday.
Asked before Friday’s 19th stage if the 29 year-old Tasmanian, whose Tour has been cruelled by illness, would lead the Sky team in a grand tour again next season, Brailsford said: “It is too early to say that yet. We haven’t finished this race yet.”
But pressed on whether he thought Porte has the assets to lead in one of the grand tours of Italy, France or Spain, Brailsford said: “Physically yeah. There is no doubt about it. With the right race, right conditions and right form - of course.”
Brailsford said he believed Porte also has the mental attributes to handle the challenge: “I think he has. I just think he needs to get into a scenario where he is on top, and then he is fighting from the front … why not?”
The Tour has been a veritable struggle for Porte since he was stricken with a chest infection after he became the team’s leader when their defending champion, Briton Chris Froome, withdrew during stage five from injuries sustained in a crash.
By the first of two rest days after stage 10, Porte looked strong and well positioned to challenge for a place on the podium with him holding second overall to Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) who was poised to win the race going into Saturday’s 20th and penultimate stage – a 54km time trial from Bergerac to Perigueux.
Porte held second place until stage 13 from Saint-Etienne to Chamrousse when he lost 8m 48s to Nibali who won the stage, and fell to 16th overall.
Porte’s Tour turned sour from there. Meanwhile, it was revealed after stage 13 that a cold he thought he had recovered from after taking antibiotics, at stage five, had returned and developed into a chest infection.
Porte has since lost time by the day and after Friday’s 19th stage, 208.5km from Maubourguet to Bergerac, he was down to 22nd overall at 55m 52s after placing 121st at 5m 58s to Lithuanian stage winner, Ramunas Navardauskas (Garmin-Sharp).
Despite Porte’s illness and its inevitable impact on his performance in such a demanding event, some questioned if he can remain durable for the full three weeks.
Asked if Porte can still be a grand tour leader, Charly Wegelius, head sports director of the American Garmin-Sharp team said: “Absolutely”, but added: “He has obviously a lot of chances, but consistency is always going to be his problem I think.”
Brailsford, who selected Porte as Froome’s wingman for the Tour, said it would have been a bigger concern if the Australian: “had 100 per cent health and it just didn’t work out. But he genuinely got ill which knocked the wind out of his sails to be honest.”
Porte’s illness aside, some have questioned if a role switch like what he was faced with after Froome’s premature exit is far more difficult to make than recognised.
Irishman Stephen Roche, the 1987 Tour winner, suspects that has been the case.
Roche said for a rider, becoming ‘Plan B’ as Porte did: “Has a reaction on your system, even though you can look at it as an opportunity to show what you can do.
“I think with Richie, the Tour was not at all focused on ‘Plan B’ because ‘Plan A’ was to ride for Froome. Richie is a team guy. That would not have been in his head at all”
Wegelius disagrees, saying riders of Porte’s stature in a team “already have that mentality and they are ambitious people.
"So I wouldn’t expect that he came to the Tour not thinking about that being on his radar at all. People like that live with that ambition of one day doing it for themselves.
"He has already been a leader in big races. So … from a mental point of view that shouldn’t normally have been a problem.”