Richie Porte is ready for the Tour de France
Richie Porte rode imperiously to win the Tour de Suisse, defending the leader’s jersey with few problems in the mountains and beating virtually all his rivals in the final time trial to win the overall by over one minute.
Better yet, his BMC team offered superb support, putting him into the lead with a dominant opening team time trial, then protecting him in numbers during the key GC stages.
Stefan Küng particularly impressed with his stint in the leader’s jersey and final time trial victory, while Greg Van Avermaet produced a mammoth turn on stage seven’s climb to Arosa to contain Nairo Quintana’s (Movistar) deadly attack.
The performances suggest that both Porte and BMC are ready to mount a challenge for the yellow jersey at the Tour de France next month.
However, it is worth remembering that we have been here before with Porte. Much was expected of him at last year’s Tour after he’d won the Tour de Romandie and finished second at the Critérium du Dauphiné in the run-in, and overall victories at Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya in 2015 established him as a major contender for the Giro d’Italia that year.
On both occasions Porte’s hopes ended in abandonments, as crashes and misfortune prevented the Australian from translating his one-week form onto a three-week Grand Tour. Having honed his form so well at the Tour de Suisse this week, Porte will be desperate not to miss another opportunity.
Nairo Quintana the pick of Movistar’s line-up
Although the line insisted upon by everyone from Movistar is that their form at the Tour will decide which of their three superstars (Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa) will be designated leader at that race, it’s inevitable that their performances in pre-Tour races like this will shape some form of likely hierarchy.
On the basis of the Tour de Suisse, Quintana certainly looks to have secured his place at the top of that hierarchy.
On stage five, Landa attacked on the summit finish to Leukerbad, but tired towards the top and was caught – and spat out of the back – by the group of favourites. By contrast, when Quintana made his big attack two days later, he successfully left everyone in his wake to win the stage and push Porte close for the overall lead.
The difference between the two’s form became further apparent in the final time trial, when Quintana sealing a podium finish, and Landa dropping from seventh overall to 16th with a ride 1-34 slower than his team-mate.
Of course, there remains the matter of where Valverde fits into all this, having continued his excellent season by winning the Route d’Occitanie on Sunday, but Quintana looks all set for a yellow jersey challenge.
There is no clear cut best sprinter in the world at the moment
There were three sprints at the Tour de Suisse, each producing a winner – Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) on a draggy finish on stage two, Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) with a powerful long-range acceleration, and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) in a tight side-to-side tussle with Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors).
The variety of outcomes was indicative of how wide open bunch sprints seem to be at the moment, with little separating a handful of top sprinters, and no single rider emerging as the quickest in the peloton.
Given his success at the last big meet between the world’s top sprinters at last month’s Tour of California, you might have expected Gaviria to dominate, but – although he did well to conquer some hilly terrain on stages two and three – he was beaten into second on all three occasions
All these riders will meet again at the Tour next month, and joined by the likes of the misfiring Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) and Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), and the on-form Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott).
On the basis of the Tour de Suisse, perhaps a shift in pattern is imminent, and this will be the first Tour for several years in which sprint stage wins are shared around between multiple riders, rather than one single sprinter dominating?
Jakob Fuglsang is an outside bet for a high Tour placing
This time last year, Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) put in the performance of his career to win the Critérium du Dauphiné, only to fracture his arm while lying in the top five overall at the Tour de France and having to abandon.
We’ll never know how high the Dane could have finished had he not sustained that injury, but his performance at the Tour de Suisse last week suggests that he is approaching the 2018 Tour de France at a similarly high level.
Fuglsang was the only rider able to stay with Porte when the Australian made his attack in pursuit of Quintana on the climb to Arosa during stage seven, then leaped from sixth to second overall with a fine and somewhat uncharacteristic time trial.
It was the best performance yet at the Tour de Suisse from a rider who has in the past finished third and fourth overall at this race, and suggests that he is ready to take on a leadership role for Team Astana at the Tour de France.
Another rider with his eye on the Tour to have been encouraged by their showing in Switzerland last week was Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), who managed fifth overall despite only previously finishing one stage race this season, while Enric Mas (Quick-Step) solidified his status as one of the peloton’s rising star climbers by finishing fourth overall.
Big time gaps highlight the importance of the team time trial
Richie Porte might have looked untouchable all week, but he might not actually have won the race were it not for his BMC team’s excellent performance in the team time trial – they put 20 seconds into the nearest challengers Sunweb, and a whole 1-18 into Jakob Fuglsang’s Astana – more than the 1-02 he ultimately lost the race by.
The time gaps highlighted just how crucial team time trials can be, increasing the anticipation for the Tour stage in Cholet next month – especially considering how that team time trial will be twice as long.
It was also interesting to see just how some results diverged between the Tour de Suisse and the Dauphiné. At the Dauphiné, Sky reigned supreme while world champions in the discipline Team Sunweb languished in last place; here, with four of their world champions winning line-up present, Sunweb stormed to second place, over one minute ahead of a weakened Sky team who only managed 14th.
It will be fascinating to see how well specialists like Sky, Sunweb and BMC (as well as Quick-Step Floors and Mitchelton-Scott, who were third and fifth respectively in Switzerland) will shape up at the Tour de France when at full strength – if this stage and that at the Dauphine’s is to go by, the time gaps between them and the smaller teams could be very significant.