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Showdown: Froome, Porte to face off in Australia

FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Team Sky’s Chris Froome begins his 2017 march toward the Tour de France in Australia this week and eyes the country’s top rider, BMC Racing’s Richie Porte.

Porte, who helped Froome win two Tour titles before switching to BMC, set the early marker with an emphatic Santos Tour Down Under win last weekend. After a small race in Melbourne on Thursday, he is due to cross swords with his former captain in Sunday’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.

“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in Richie’s abilities and always said he’s a Tour de France contender,” Froome told the Australian Associated Press.

“It’s still very early obviously in the season and it’s probably too early to be talking [about] favorites for the Tour.

“Certainly for Sunday, I’d expect Richie to be up there on that final climb, as I’d expect Esteban [Chaves], and Nathan [Haas] to be hanging on for dear life.”

Froome rolls into 2017 with a non-UCI ranked race on Melbourne’s Formula One track Thursday. Officially, he begins with the tough one-day race designed and named after 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans.

The race undulates around Geelong’s foothills, where last year climber Peter Kennaugh of Sky won. Neither Froome nor Porte have great one-day race records, but it marks the first battle in a war that should continue through July.

Porte explained, “One-day races can be so unpredictable and it’s by no means an easy race.”

He will have a good gauge of the 2017 Froome vintage after Sunday. Many predict he is on track for a fourth Tour title this July. Since 2013, only crashes have stopped him from dominating the race.

Discounting the established stars like Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, Porte is most likely to stop Froome’s domination. The 31-year-old Tasmanian paid his dues with Alberto Contador and then with Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and Froome. He left for the 2016 season to lead BMC Racing’s team. Last year, he lost precious time to a untimely puncture on day two, but continued strongly through the three weeks and ended with what he called a confidence-building fifth place.

This year, with Tejay van Garderen in the Giro d’Italia, BMC Racing’s Tour intentions are clear. The campaign began with the Tour Down Under, which Porte dominated in the two summit finishes. It continues with the Melbourne ride and Evans’s race Sunday.

“We are going with a lot of motivation,” BMC Racing sport director Fabio Baldato said.

“We know that Richie is in good shape and the rest of the team is too. I think all of the other teams will be watching us, given our results at the Tour Down Under.”

Porte, regardless of his friend’s quest for a fourth title, recognizes 2017 will be an important season for him.

“I’m coming into my prime and I know I don’t have that many more opportunities to have a full crack at the Tour,” Porte said. “I’m going to make the most of that.”

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