By Sophie Smith
Richie Porte spearheads the Sky team that will start the Tour Down Under tomorrow with the aim of winning the first WorldTour event of the 2014 season.
Porte has been named as one of three major contenders for the race including compatriots Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) and Cadel Evans (BMC).
The Australian will race without the support of teammate Chris Sutton, who sustained a fractured wrist in a crash during Sunday's prelude criterium, in which he finished fourth, and has today withdrawn.
Tomorrow's opening stage in the Barossa Valley will go ahead as planned with a bushfire in the area contained.
The majority of the Sky team has been in Australia training since late December and so is well adjusted to the hot conditions and time difference. The Tour Down Under is one of three major early season objectives for Porte including Paris-Nice, which he won last year, and, notably, the Giro d'Italia.
"I don't think there's going to be prologue or a time trial in Paris-Nice this year but I think it's good for me to go to a race where I can't rely on my time trialing to try and win," he said. "[Vincenzo] Nibali and those guys are all going to be there and there are a couple of stages with around 3000m of climbing so I'm looking forward to that.
"Paris-Nice hasn't really been happy hunting ground for me until last year so I'd like to go there this year and see what I can do."
The 28 year old believes he is in the best shape he has ever been - for this time of year - and has earmarked stages three and five as the most decisive of the six-day Tour Down Under.
Porte showed an indication of his form with a third place finish at the Australian national road championships this month, which Gerrans won ahead of Evans.
"I haven't really done any specific training. I've just been back in Tasmania riding my bike so to be third against such a class field I was happy," Porte said. "But then I also know that when Gerro went on the last climb I didn't have the legs to go with him. I hope that this tour is a little bit different. Maybe having a team here too - Geraint [Thomas] and [Philip] Deignan - we can shake GreenEdge up a bit."
The 135km opening stage from Nurioopta to Angaston begins at 11.00am local time on Monday.
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