Tour support act Porte now a leading man
MATURING like a fine wine, Richie Porte is primed for his first genuine shot at Tour de France glory.
The 31-year-old from Launceston - nicknamed the Tasmanian Devil - enters the gruelling 3535km event as team leader, alongside American Tejay van Garderen, for the first time.
Porte spent years playing a support role, first at Saxo Bank under Alberto Contador and then with Sky, where he helped Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Chris Froome (2013, 2015) to claim the coveted yellow jersey.
But in the 103rd edition of racing's pre-eminent event, Porte is riding for BMR Racing and will take on both his superstar former teammates, Froome and Contador, over 21 stages, starting from the foot of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy tonight.
Among those backing Porte this time will be fellow Aussie Rohan Dennis, the winner of last year's opening stage.
"To know that Tejay and I will be supported by such a strong group of guys is really motivating," said Porte, whose best result in the Tour was 19th in 2013.
"I've already raced with these seven riders a lot this season and I'm confident that we are going into the Tour de France in a really good position.
"My form is good, my legs are good and after another week of fine-tuning, I'm definitely ready to race. It's an exciting time."
Despite carrying the extra responsibility this year as BMC Racing's official road captain, Porte said he was not feeling extra pressure.
"It's different not going in on the same team as the big favourite to win," he recently told media.
"It's been nice, to be honest, to fly under the radar a little bit. Mentally I feel much fresher than I did this time last year.
"My job now is to survive as long as I can on the big climbs and put myself in as good a position as I can on the sprint stages and crosswind stages.
"It's less pressure but I don't think anybody is going to let either of us (me and van Garderen) attack and have an easy ride."
Porte has been a solid rider in 2016 - finishing second in the Tour Down Under behind countryman Simon Gerrans, third in the Paris-Nice behind Geraint Thomas and Contador, fourth in the Tour of Catalunya and second in the Criterium du Dauphine behind Froome.
The Tasmanian is on the fifth line of betting for the Tour in most markets, behind Froome, Nairo Quintana, Contador and Favio Aru.
Contador, the winner of the Tour in 2007 and 2009, and riding in the event for the final time, is certainly wary of his old friend.
"Richie is a great rider and a great rival in the Tour, as he demonstrated in the last Criterium du Dauphine," Contador said.
"He has matured as a rider and is a complete rider, both in time trial and climbing. Perhaps he is not at the same level as Froome or Quintana, but he will be a rival to keep in mind."
BMC teammate and national time trial champion Dennis is also set to make an impact, with the Tour including two individual time trials - 37km between Bourg-Saint- Andeol and La Caverne du Pont-d'Arc (on stage 13) and 17km between Sallanches and Megeve (on stage 18).
In winning last year's opening stage time trial, Dennis became one of only seven Australians to have worn the yellow jersey (for leading the Tour general classification), after Phil Anderson (1981, '82), Stuart O'Grady (1998, 2001), Brad McGhee (2003), Robbie McEwan (2004), Cadel Evans (2008, 2010 and 2011, when the overall winner) and Gerrans (2013).
Ominously though, defending champion Froome has said this year's race - 174.7km longer than in 2015 - will suit him better.
Said to be a climber's race, it features a mountainous route that takes in the Pyrenees and the Alps and includes four summit finishes - Andorre Arcalis, Finhaut-Emosson, Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc and Mont Ventoux, where Froome dominated in 2013 when it was last part of course.
Unless Porte and Co can do something spectacular, it may be that Froome finishes on top of the world again.
Porte said he and Froome remained friends - although that friendship came under fire when they were seen working together in the Dauphine.
"If you can ride together to put time into other rivals, then why not do it? But I know the Tour is different," Porte said, before adding, "if I need to attack him and I can do, then I will for sure."