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CHAMROUSSE, France (VN) — After riding the winning wave in the last two editions of the Tour de France, Sky’s hopes of repeating in 2014 faded Friday when Richie Porte lost ground on the Chamrousse climb.
“I don’t think I dealt with the heat very well,” Porte said after rolling to the team bus nearly nine minutes behind leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
“It’s one of those things. It’s a massive shame but we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
The mercury touched 93 degrees but must have felt much hotter when Porte and the others raced through southeast France toward its first Alpine summit finish.
Not only Porte, but several riders suffered under the sun’s intense rays. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) explained that his legs felt like they were on fire. Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) lost a handful of minutes, and world champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) yo-yoed off the back in the final climb.
The 29-year-old Australian was supposed to carry Sky’s torch, next in line after Bradley Wiggins’ win in 2012 and Chris Froome’s in 2013. The British team tipped Porte as a future grand tour winner and gave him his chance after Froome tumbled and abandoned this Tour.
Its hopes quickly faded when Porte began to drift towards the rear of the group led by Nibali and his Astana teammate Tanel Kangert. Porte popped off the rear at 12.4 kilometers remaining and slipped away quickly as the 18.2km climb continued upward towards the Chamrousse ski village at 5,675 feet.
Faithful domestique Mikel Nieve, who Porte refers to as ‘Frosty,’ dropped back to help, but there was nothing to do. Porte slipped to 2:40 behind at 8km, 6:09 at 4km and to nearly nine minutes at the line.
Sky’s general manager, David Brailsford said, “It was just a question of minimizing his losses [when he was dropped] and keep on going.”
Brailsford searched for answers to what could have happened to his star, who led the chase Monday to Nibali up the La Planche des Belles Filles. Porte looked to be the most brilliant rider behind the Italian leader and to be capable of mounting a charge on his lead.
“I don’t know what happened, that’s the honest answer,” Brailsford said. “Obviously, though, it wasn’t the Richie that we’ve seen for the first part of the race.”
Brailsford helped the British track team dominate with a marginal gains approach and applied those to Sky when the team took to the road in 2010. He and the team will likely use that same calculated approach when they sit around the table tonight at the hotel in Échirolles, just south of Saturday’s start in Grenoble.
The plan could switch from GC to stage wins. Nieve appeared capable of marking the favorites and going for a stage win Friday. Brailsford will likely give Porte the green light to see if he can stay with Nibali and the others Saturday when the race tackles more Alpine climbs before making the switch to stage hunting.
“We are not going to roll over,” Brailsford said. “It was a blow losing Chris. We recalibrated to our plan B and we have to recalibrate again now.
“We can look to animate the race as much as possible. I don’t think we just go around and follow.”