Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.
Richie Porte’s form is hotter than it’s ever been, but can he maintain such a high level until the end of the Giro?
It’s been an incredible early season for Porte: he’s already won the GC at Paris-Nice, the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and this week’s Giro del Trentino. Add in a close second at the Tour Down Under (where he would have won if not for time bonuses) and fourth at the Volta ao Algarve (where he won the mountains classification and a stage).
That’s right, his worst finish on GC for the year so far, out of five stage races, is fourth.
Porte is absolutely flying. A tough 2014 season has been well and truly shaken off. He looks lean, hungry, and powerful. He’s winning time trials (including the national championship) and mountain stages.
He won the Giro del Trentino with a vicious solo attack to win stage two after one of those Team Sky power-climbing exhibitions that spectators love so much. When Porte launched, it was scintillating stuff – out of the saddle in the big ring, with Astana’s Mikel Landa floundering in his wake.
He’s leading the UCI points rankings, making him arguably the best rider in the world at the moment. While the focus of the cycling world has been on the bombastic spring classics, Porte has been playing assassin with ruthless efficiency across the roads of Portugal, Spain, France and now Italy.
It’s reminiscent of Wiggins in 2012, scorching his way through the season taking all before him.
Porte is clearly in better form than any other Giro contender.
His old leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo Bank) has been steady, gaining a handful of top-five results, but with his sights set on a Giro-Tour double, he needs to keep his form rising until late in the Giro d’Italia, lest he blow his Tour campaign.
His former teammate Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quickstep) is at home in Colombia training at altitude. Uran finished fifth in Catalunya and third at Tirreno-Adriatico, so he is also looking steady rather than spectacular.
Uran has finished second in the last two editions of the Giro d’Italia, and will be motivated after losing the maglia rosa last year in controversial fashion when his compatriot Nairo Quintana attacked descending the Stelvio in the snow, in confusion about whether the race was neutralised.
Last year’s podium revelation Fabio Aru (Astana) is suffering from a stomach ailment and extraordinary speculation after Lotto-Soudal’s Greg Henderson accused him (on Twitter) of using the illness as a cover for a bio passport violation. No doubt there’ll be intense scrutiny on Aru, but his preparation has been so badly interrupted there’s even been talk of switching Vincenzo Nibali in to lead the embattled Astana squad at the Giro before defending his Tour de France crown.
My view is that Astana would be far better served by having Nibali in blazing form at the Tour, than having him half-cooked at the Giro and over-cooked in France.
Aru was sixth in Catalunya at the end of March, but hasn’t raced in April, and I would be stunned if he can improve on his 2014 result with such an interrupted preparation.
Other quality GC contenders are scarce in this Giro. Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R), Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) and Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) the best of them.
I feel the Giro field is one of the weakest in recent years. It’s a golden chance for Porte to step onto his first Grand Tour podium, perhaps even (whisper it) a win.
I’ve just listed quite a lot of reasons to think that Porte is a shoe-in for the Giro podium, if not the victory.
So why should we have any doubts? He’s in the best shape of his career, he’s been routinely belting the snot out of his rivals at every important stage race so far this season, and his rivals (Uran excused) are either focused elsewhere, ill, or simply not in Porte’s class.
Why? Because form is bloody difficult to maintain for longer than a few weeks at a time, and Porte’s legs have been blazing hot since January.
Because despite his obvious talents, since his surprise seventh overall at the 2010 Giro (as a neo-pro) Porte has never been able to sustain a high level of performance for the full three weeks of a Grand Tour.
Because his best Grand Tour result since that Giro was 19th, at the 2013 Tour de France.
Because riders who can win week-long stage races aren’t necessarily the ones who can win Grand Tours, and vice versa.
Because the weight of Grand Tour leadership at a team with Sky’s exposure and ambition is immense, and he hasn’t coped well when asked to carry it previously.
And finally, this year’s Giro features four high mountain finishes in its final week, when Porte will be at his most vulnerable.
I would dearly love to see Richie Porte converting his potential into a big result. Becoming only the second Australian Grand Tour winner would be immense. Every interview and story about him mentions that he’s found a new focus, discipline, maturity. His year so far has been nearly perfect.
Perhaps it is Richie Porte’s time. We’ll see at the end of May.