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Can Richie Porte captain Team Sky at the Tour de France?

REIMS, France (VN) — Riche Porte had little time to be down about the loss of his captain, Chris Froome, at this Tour de France. He was, in an instant, the captain himself. After riding as Sky’s number two, Porte now sat at the helm of one of peloton’s most feared ships — Team Sky.

It was an enormous opening, and one he won’t let go of easily. Not now.

“Now I ride for myself,” Porte said. “Not somebody else.”

Though he was sorry to see Froome, the man he’s steered to a Tour win, depart under such terms. “Obviously, losing Chris, it’s not nice. But that’s cycling, and the sun still sort of came out this morning. Now I have an opportunity. It’s a big one. I’m ready to grab it with both hands,” Porte said before the start of stage 6 as it rained lightly. “It was quite unbelievable. Once we got into it I actually enjoyed those cobbles … It was a good stage for us in the end.”

Porte is just under two minutes back of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). As a GC rider, the 29-year-old Aussie is a formidable backup, a team leader in the making. He won Paris-Nice in 2013 and finished second twice at the Critérium du Dauphiné. He’s won the Volta ao Algarve and claimed the best young rider classification at the Giro d’Italia in 2010. As a super-domestique, Porte’s been invaluable. And though he finds himself with a golden chance in the 2014 Tour, this year hasn’t gone to plan. He was slated to ride the Giro as a leader but illness kept his form at bay.

“I mean I think I’m flying under the radar, which is just fine,” Porte said. “I am in good form. I’m looking forward to hitting the mountains.”

Before this Tour began, Froome said that if something were to happen to him, the world would soon see how good Porte was. That time is now.

“Sometimes I think he’s got more belief in me than I do myself,” Porte said of Froome. “It’s sad to see him go, but you know it’s a big opportunity for me. And we do have a great team here so I’m looking forward to stepping up.”

Tactically, the burden will be on Astana to protect Nibali and manage the race, a duty that’s fallen to Sky the past two Tours as they rallied around Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Froome the following year. It’s a big ask for any team to bridle the unruly Tour.

“They’ve got a good head start on the rest of us. But you know, get through these couple of stages and you know we’ll just see, Porte said. “Last year we sat first and second on the Tour and we saw the disaster that was.”

The “disaster” Porte was likely referencing was his implosion following a huge turn in the Pyrenees that put Froome in yellow. Porte was dropped early the next day, and Froome was isolated, Porte falling from second overall at the beginning of the day to 10 minutes down on the stage.

Clearly, the Tour is far from determined, in just its first week and before any summit finishes. There’s plenty of racing left, and teams will need to conspire to crack Nibali’s code.

“Obviously [Nibali’s] in the box seat. But I don’t know. I still think the last week in the Pyrenees, that’s still where the race is going to be decided. Astana, they have to defend now,” Porte said. “It’s going to make for an interesting race.”

As the current era of racing indicates, it won’t be enough to attack with 500 meters to a summit and steal 15 seconds from Nibali, who’s some two minutes out on the other GC men.

Last year’s romantic animator — however in vain — will no doubt try to regain his throne. “This is the thing with Alberto [Contador]. He’s a racer,” Porte said. I think Nibali is, too. But I don’t think Alberto is going to take this one lightly. I’m sure we’re going to see fireworks on the weekend.”

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