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NICE, France (VN) — The most common adage in cycling is that it takes a team to win, but the flipside of that is it also takes a captain around whom a team can rally.
Paris-Nice served as proving grounds for Richie Porte (Sky) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), who both demonstrated they were worthy of the support their respective teams gave them for the first time.
Porte and Talansky dominated Paris-Nice, with Porte taking two stage wins to become the first Australian to win the “Race to the Sun,” while Talansky yet again confirmed his rising talent with a stage victory, two days in the yellow jersey, and his first podium in a WorldTour event.
The budding team captains took full advantage of the opportunities offered them by their teams at Paris-Nice.
“This shows that when the team sends me somewhere to support me and the pressure is on to deliver, that I will,” Talansky told VeloNews. “And that’s not something that’s some day, but that it’s really possible, both this year and the seasons to come. It’s the progression of trying to be on a grand tour podium one day.”
Paris-Nice was the next step in Talansky’s steady but impressive upward trajectory that began during his rookie season in 2011. Last year, he took his first European pro win at the Tour de l’Ain and clawed his way to seventh in the Vuelta a España.
Buoyed by those results, Garmin gave its third-year professional the green light to lead the team outright at Paris-Nice, Europe’s first major stage race of the season. And he paid it back in spades.
“We came here with a team for Andrew, thinking top five, and he won a stage and reached the podium,” said Garmin sport director Geert Van Bondt. “Andrew was very happy when he realized what an important step he made in his career.”
Team leadership is a two-way street. Riders will work hard if they know their captain can finish off the job. They will just as easily back off if the hard work is in vain.
Garmin brought a squad loaded with classics riders honing their form for April’s big battles, so Talansky didn’t see much support on the climbs, but they lifted their game to support him on the flats before the television cameras came on.
Those riders stepped up after Talansky snuck into a late-race move to win stage 3 and snatch the yellow jersey.
“We all rode hard for Andrew because you could see he was going well,” said Garmin rider Jack Bauer. “The kid is very good. He’s a natural-born winner. It will be interesting to see how far he can go.”
Talansky’s second-place podium also revealed that he not only has the engine to win in WorldTour events, but also has the head to handle the pressures and responsibilities that inevitably come with leadership.
Von Bondt was impressed with his young charge.
“He is very good at handling stress. This morning, he had a plan for the time trial and he was ready, but he was also very calm. He said, ‘I just have to do what I have to do,'” Von Bondt said. “You must remember he is only 24. The way he handles the pressure is impressive. It’s the mark of a champion.”
Talansky said the week was replete with lessons, but one of the most important was embracing the idea that he has the confidence to lead the team and the ability to finish off its work.
“This week has been incredible on and off the bike. We felt like a team this week. It was incredible to see the guys give everything,” Talansky said. “The guys on the bus [on Saturday], they were empty. There was nothing left. These guys stepped up and rode above what was expected of them.”
Porte finding his place
While Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters has been grooming Talansky as heir apparent for two years, Porte has had a tougher time finding his place at Sky. With Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome taking the spotlight on the British squad, Porte has often felt like the odd man out.
When Sky told Porte the team would ride for him at Paris-Nice, he embraced it, despite not having much love for eight-day race across France.
“It was very satisfying to win today and to be able to finish it off and show I was the strongest. It’s been a great week for me,” Porte said. “The team rode for me 100 percent and I showed that when I get the support of the team, I can deliver.”
Deliver he did. He not only knocked back Talansky up Montagne de Lure on Friday, but he also rode within three seconds of matching Wiggins’ 2012 mark in the Col d’Eze time trial. In fact, the finish line was 100 meters longer this year compared to last year, so he all but tied Wiggins on the climbing race against the clock.
The 28-year-old Porte wanted to make the most of his chance to ride as the protected man at Sky, his first real chance to lead since joining the team last year.
A relative latecomer to road racing after training as a triathlete as a teen, Porte said he’s just starting to hit his stride in his fourth season in the pro peloton.
“I came to bike racing pretty late. I know I still have a lot to learn,” Porte said. “This week is very important for me. Paris-Nice is a huge race and to ride like I did this week will carry forward.”
In 2010, when he rode as a neo-pro for Saxo Bank, team boss Bjarne Riis criticized Porte by saying he was “too fat” to ever be a successful bike racer. Porte took that as motivation to slim down and now tips the scales at a svelte 62kg.
“It was humiliating at the time, but at the end of the day, Bjarne was right,” Porte said. “I wasn’t in shape. I worked with Bradley McGee, who looked after me like as if I was his son, and I later won a time trial at [Tour de] Romandie and had that good Giro [d’Italia]. It’s not nice to hear the truth sometimes, but thank you, Bjarne.”
Porte isn’t sure if he could some day challenge for a grand tour — he wore the maglia rosa in that 2010 Giro — but he proved this week that he can certainly finish off the job when his teammates ride for him.
Sky brought a deep roster to support Porte, including Danny Pate, Kanstantsin Sivtsov, and newcomer David López. López proved invaluable to Porte and was still with him on the upper reaches of Montagne de Lure when Talansky began to attack late in stage 5.
López helped reel in three Talansky efforts, opening the door for Porte to counter with 1.3km to go and grab the leader’s jersey for good.
“López has been incredible this whole week. He was the architect of what happened on the Lure,” Porte said. “He told me, ‘stay calm and wait,’ to not go too early. That proved to be good advice.”
Unlike Talansky, who is headed to his Tour de France debut this summer with freedom to ride his own race, Porte knows he will slip back into the supporter’s role behind Froome and Wiggins.
“I knew that’s what I would be doing when I came to this team,” Porte said. “I will have my chances in other races, but my main goal right now is to go to the Tour. It will be hard to even make the Tour team with this squad.”
Talansky will continue on his leadership journey with stops at Critérium International, the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country, the Tour de Romandie, and ultimately the Tour.
Porte, meanwhile, will return to a helper’s role. With his contract up at the end of 2013, that’s sure to change as more than a few teams are sure to be knocking on his door with GC offers. First, however, the Tasmanian will hope to punch his ticket back to France in late June, and pull Froome or Wiggins into Sky’s second consecutive maillot jaune in Paris.