THEY are the team everyone wants to beat, but Richie Porte insists his fellow Team Sky riders are ready to help Chris Froome make a successful defence of his Tour de France title.
Having won his first Tour crown in last year’s race, Froome will start as a strong favourite when this year’s edition begins with an opening stage between Leeds and Harrogate tomorrow.
The 29-year-old will expect to come into his own when the Tour heads into the mountain stages of the Alps and Pyrenees in just over a week’s time, but between now and then, it is the responsibility of his team-mates to ensure he does not lose too much time to any of his rivals.
While Saturday’s opening stage should be a relatively straight-forward contest that ends in a frantic bunch sprint, Sunday’s hilly route between York and Sheffield has the potential to make an early dent in the ambitions of a number of the leading candidates if they get their tactics wrong.
As Froome’s preferred right-hand man, Porte will be charged with the task of hauling back any breakaways that have the potential to cause damage.
And while the absence of Sir Bradley Wiggins has caused ructions in the build up to the Tour, the Australian is confident Team Sky are in an ideal shape to get started this weekend.
“The Tour de France is the biggest race in the world, and everybody’s on their very top form,” said Porte. “It’s where your season is judged as being a success or not by many people.
“We’ve got pressure on us, having won the race two years in a row, and going in with Chris as favourite means we’re right in the spotlight, but once we get to the start line on Saturday, it’ll be business as usual. It’s a great team, and one which I know will have incredible morale.”
Porte’s presence in the Tour field was in doubt earlier in the season as he was originally intended to line up as one of Team Sky’s leading contenders in the Giro D’Italia instead.
An early-season illness prevented him from competing in Italy though, and meant the Tour was suddenly back on the agenda as Sir Dave Brailsford attempted to mould a team that was capable of providing Froome with the best possible support.
Porte proved his fitness on the recent Criterium du Dauphine, and cannot wait to head into the Yorkshire Dales tomorrow.
“I’m good,” he said. “My plan at the start of this year was to ride the Giro in May, but when that didn’t work out, my focus switched entirely to the Tour.
“I’ve been working towards this for the last few months, and I’m both excited and nervous heading into the race.
“I didn’t feel great at the start (of the Criterium), but I felt stronger every day and with the training I’ve done since then, I’m now where I want to be.
“That’s really pleasing given the problems I had with illnesses. It’s one thing to be good in training, and a whole different thing in racing, but I’m happy with where I’m at and I’ve done everything I could to be on top form heading into the Tour.”
Porte was one of the Team Sky riders who travelled to Yorkshire last month to rehearse the route of the opening two stages. He was impressed with the natural grandeur of the Dales – but even happier with the quality of Yorkshire’s tea.
“We were blessed with good weather the last time we were here,” he said. “I’m just hoping that it’ll be like that again.
“I’m looking forward to sampling the cups of tea again too. I’m a massive coffee fan usually, but I got really into my tea the last time I was here – it’s the best tea I’ve ever tasted!”