Road

Porte sets early marker with emphatic TDU win

After proving he’s the strongest man in Australia, Richie Porte will export that momentum to Europe.

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — After proving he’s the strongest man in Australia, Richie Porte (BMC Racing) will export that momentum to Europe.

The 31-year-old Tasmanian locked up an elusive GC on Sunday at the six-day Santos Tour Down Under, beating back the likes of Esteban Chaves (Orica – Scott) and a top Aussie field. The victory means even more as he takes aim at the Tour de France this summer.

From Adelaide to Paris, it’s pedal to the metal, with all eyes on the yellow-jersey prize.

“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.”

The Tour Down Under was the first step toward Paris. In his return to racing after crashing out of the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games road race, Porte looked fit, trim and motivated to stake his claim as the man to beat.

After some close calls and bad luck at the Tour Down Under, including back-to-back second places, Porte took the race by the scruff of the neck, with blistering attacks on the two uphill finales to win at Paracomb and Old Willunga Road to stamp his name on the trophy. In a race typically coming down to time bonuses, his 48-second margin of victory is the second-largest in the Tour Down Under’s 19-year history.

“Richie deserves to win the race,” said Matt White, sport director on rival Orica – Scott. “He was the best climber here, and with two uphill finishes, he proved it when it counted.”

The next big question is how far Porte can carry his early season success into the meat of the European season. Up next is the one-day Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race before returning to Europe for Paris-Nice, a race he’s won twice, and then Catalunya, Romandie and Dauphiné ahead of tackling the Tour as BMC’s sole leader. With the team sending Tejay van Garderen to the Giro d’Italia, BMC is rallying its troops around Porte.

For the first time in his career, Porte will be Plan A in July.

“That’s exciting, that I have a team built around me for the first time ever,” Porte said. “I’ve often been the Plan B, or whatever. BMC Racing have put a lot of faith in me this year, and today I’ve shown them I can repay that faith.”

Joining Porte this week in Australia were riders such as Amael Moinard, Danilo Wyss, and Damiano Caruso who will likely be part of his Tour entourage. Newcomer Fran Ventoso also impressed with strong performances all week.

Can challenge Froome

BMC Racing believes that Porte has the chops to take on Chris Froome and Sky, which has won four of the past five editions of the Tour de France. Porte was an integral part of that Froome’s “Fortress Sky” before taking the leap to join BMC Racing last year.

After finishing fifth last year at the Tour despite a costly puncture late in stage 2 and tumbling on the Mont Ventoux fiasco when he followed Froome and Bauke Mollema on the attack, BMC is confident they’ve found their man. The team is banking that Porte can contend for the podium if he can get a clean run through the Tour.

Porte’s emphatic victory in Australia sets the tone for the rest of the season. Winning breeds success.

“If you want to win the Super Bowl, you gotta win the first game of the season,” said BMC Racing’s general manager Jim Ochowicz. “This win brings momentum to the whole team. Richie has the guys here that will be with him the whole season. You win here, and you can start the ball rolling all season long.”

Porte’s overall win at Australia’s most important stage race brings his palmares full circle. Second two years in a row, Porte was unstoppable this week, and comes out looking like the man to beat when he returns to Europe.

“I think back to nine years ago, this race really kicked off my career,” he said, referring to his ninth-place ride in 2008 as a neo-pro. “I see the photos of me in 2008, and I looked like I’d eaten a few more pies … It’s been quite the journey, with a lot of ups and downs. Hopefully, it’s a great season for me and I’m really looking forward to getting back to Europe and getting stuck in.”

Australia already has its first Tour winner, with Cadel Evans who won in 2011 after years of banging at the door. Now it’s Porte’s turn. A strong debut on home roads will set the tone for run at the Tour.