Can BMC handle Sky’s Tour de France super-team?

DUSSELDORF, Germany (VN) — The untimely crumbling of Richie Porte’s BMC team at his final pre-Tour test, the Critérium du Dauphiné, begs the question: You’re strong enough, Richie, but is your team?

The inquiry lingers in the final days before the 2017 Tour de France begins. BMC is up against a formidable opponent in Chris Froome’s Team Sky. There is consensus that the British outfit is the strongest team in the race. BMC is nonetheless confident.

“I think we picked the right team,” Porte said. His eyes remain on the podium. “I’ll do my best to get there.”

There’s no ignoring what happened at the Dauphiné, though. Porte came into the final stage with 1:02 on Chris Froome and 1:15 on Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang. He was, by Froome’s own account, the strongest rider in the race. Yet by the finish of the short, 115km final stage, Porte lost yellow by 10 seconds. Due to tactics and teams, the strongest rider in the race didn’t win.

Porte largely blames the day on “negative” tactics of his opponents. Chris Froome, in particular, seemed to be riding against his old Sky teammate and frequent training partner. Froome attacked Porte over the top of the penultimate climb, then pulled the group ahead even when it was clear his own chances to win were slim.

Those tactics, though, were just bike racing. The fact remains that the presence of even a single BMC teammate in the finale would likely have saved Porte’s Dauphiné. None were there.

“We were incredible the day before, on Alpe d’Huez stage, the guys were incredible,” Porte said in Thursday’s pre-Tour press conference. “It’s a shame the race panned out like that. You learn from experiences like that.

“If people gang up on you then it’s going to make for hard racing. I think it’s going to be … hopefully nothing like that happens again. The Tour de France is a different race, there’s always someone with interest in the stage, so hopefully that was an isolated experience.”

While most of Sky’s Tour team was at the Dauphiné, much of Porte’s eventual Tour team was not. That includes the climber he’ll lean on most heavily, Damiano Caruso.

BMC management picked its nine-rider Tour squad — Porte and his eight rolling bodyguards — more than six months ago. It didn’t put them on a long list, just the list. The nine were given their marching orders: Be ready for the Tour. They knew then what lay ahead and had the time to prepare accordingly. “Everybody is healthy and ready to go. We’ve been lucky,” said manager Jim Ochowicz. “The plan was made then, and the plan is now in fruition. We’re going into the Tour with a group we’ve prepared for six and a half months.”

Hope is one thing, preparation is another. BMC left few stones unturned in the quest to minimize time-sapping road incidents that could derail Porte’s hopes. Remember Porte’s untimely flat in the Tour’s stage 2 last year? It lost him 1:45, largely because his team wasn’t ready with a new wheel. Tejay van Garderen was up the road, chasing his own chances. Others were too far behind. BMC ditched the dual-leader plan and Ochowicz asked the Tour team to learn the art of the wheel change at three recent training camps. Under simulated race conditions, each rider practiced jumping off their own bike to give Porte a wheel. “It’s really whoever is closest,” Ochowicz said. “Now they know can do it in 12 seconds.”

Tour winner Cadel Evans, who took his yellow with BMC, sees a team ready to take on the Tour’s key moments. Porte will have “great support in the mountains,” Evans said. “I don’t know if they will be the strongest team in the mountains, but they will be right up there.”

“So far they have come to the start of the Tour better than I hoped — with more race wins, more team cohesion and a stronger team than even I had hoped,” he added. “But it is all to be played out on the road.”

Will Porte’s BMC team be stronger than Sky? That’s unlikely. Froome will have Mikel Nieve, Mikel Landa, and Sergio Henao while the only pure climber on Porte’s roster is Caruso. BMC’s Nicholas Roche will be there in key moments, too; he’s a good match for Sky’s Geraint Thomas. On the whole, the climbing edge goes to Team Sky.

It’s a tricky course to prepare for, though, with few mountaintop finishes, no team time trial, and a plethora of transition stages. “It’s a lot of climbing, a lot of gaps in between climbs,” Ochowicz said. “Some are summit finishes, some are descents — we have multi-talents here. We think we can deal with the unknowns and also deal our own cards when we need to.” Sky has a few rouleur types, Christian Knees, Vasil Kyrienka, and Luke Rowe, but BMC can match them, if not exceed them.

“We don’t just have a classics rider, we have the world’s best classics rider in Greg [Van Avermaet],” Porte said. And he’s right; the Olympic champion could play a crucial role at the race’s more important transitions, and in getting Porte to the mountains unscathed.

The climbing edge goes to Sky, but BMC may offer better protection for its leader, and more well-rounded support. Perhaps that’s why the team sounds so confident. “Something is going to happen to everybody in this bike race, even the winner,” Ochowicz said. “Nobody is going to get through this race without getting through something they have to deal with. The better ones take it easy, relax, regroup, the teammates are here to help. Reevaluate, reset the dial, and get back to business as soon as possible.” His team, he thinks, is ready to do just that.

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