Porte feeling positive about Tour success
CYCLING: Richie Porte has paid his dues in cycling and knows 2017 could be his time.
In the discussion of overall victory contenders in the Tour de France, the 31-year-old Australian has been thereabouts for the past few years.
Bad luck played a part in denying him a shot at a podium finish in 2016 but there's a sense the planets could be aligning in Porte's quest to become the second Australian after Cadel Evans to win one of the most gruelling events on the planet.
Porte has been named as BMC's outright leader for the 2017 Tour de France, giving him a deserved crack at general classification glory after playing supporting roles in the Team Sky victories of Brits Chris Froome (2013, 2015) and Bradley Wiggins (2012).
The Aussie cycling star is about to embark on the biggest year of his career, which begins on home soil at the Tour Down Under this weekend.
Porte is feeling positive about the year ahead but knows he'll need plenty to go his way to challenge the likes of Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador in the Tour de France, road cycling's biggest event, in July.
The Australian is already starting the year on the back foot, having sat out the last three months of 2016 to recover from the fractured scapular sustained in a horror crash in the Rio Olympic road race.
He also admits the 2017 Tour de France course isn't ideal with its lack of climb finishes - in which he excels - but that hasn't dampened his optimism.
"I think there's only three hilltop finishes this year, which isn't exactly great for me, but it's still going to be a hard Tour, regardless of that,” Porte said.
"I think for me, to leave (Team) Sky at the end of 2015 was always to have the chance to go to the Tour de France for myself so I just see this now as kind of a massive opportunity.
"I feel I deserve this opportunity. I've been in the service of others and so to be outright leader, the faith that BMC is putting on me, I'd like to repay it.
"It's a long road to the Tour but I'm motivated probably more than ever for July.”
Living cycling legend Froome is an odds-on favourite to claim a fourth Tour de France title, however Porte insists this year's Tour is an open affair.
They have remained close friends since Porte left Sky two years ago and they competed as rivals in the 2016 event - a frustrating one for Porte, who suffered early mechanical problems before rallying strongly to finish fifth.
"I think you get a new-found respect for him (Froome) from the other side, but of course he's beatable,” Porte said.
"He's only human and Team Sky has got an impressive line-up ... but that's not to say they're unbeatable and that guys like Quintana and Contador aren't going to be in brilliant shape also.”
Porte has a powerful ally in his corner in countryman Evans, who remains a team ambassador for BMC.
"Last year during the Tour, just having him on the WhatsApp and stuff, he's really happy to help another Australian,” Porte said of 39-year-old Evans, who became the first Australian Tour de France winner in 2011.
"He's definitely a good sounding board. He's not long retired so he knows how to read the race and the situations behind it. He's brilliant to have.”
The significance of having a chance to join Evans in sporting immortality is not lost on Porte.
"I'm great friends with Chris Froome and I've seen how it (winning the Tour de France) has changed his life,” Porte said.
"The Tour de France is massive in Europe and of course to win it's one thing, but to even be around the podium - which I think I probably should have been in 2016 had I not had a disaster - that's still a massive result.
"It is one of those things; I'd love to go to the Tour and have some good luck, not have any disasters on the road and just see what I can do.”
Porte, a two-time Paris-Nice winner, is trying not too look too far ahead with plenty on his plate in the coming months, beginning with Adelaide's Tour Down Under (starting on Saturday and ending on January 22).
He's finished second in general classification for each of the past two years and is determined to go one better, although Porte admits to an element of mystery over his form and fitness.
Porte said forced time off the bike had allowed him to refresh mentally, while he also had his tonsils removed - something he feels will benefit him long-term having often struggled with illness and infections during longer tours.
"Injury-wise I'm fine - I'm back on the bike and feeling fit, but having that long off racing, you don't really know where you're at,” he said.
"So for me, the Tour Down Under will be a good gauge of where I'm at.
"The (other) guys are probably a little bit ahead of where I am at, having had two months off the bike ... but I'd love to win. I think every Australian would love to win that race.
"This year looks quite good for me, it's got a couple of hard finishes and it's probably the hardest route that it's been in a few years.
"I think if my form's where it was the last two years, then I can be up there and fighting for the win.”