A RAIN-SOAKED, crash-filled, chaotic stage of the Tour de France has catapulted Richie Porte into genuine podium contention.
Odds on the Launceston rider winning the world's biggest annual sporting event yesterday plummeted from a pre-race $67 to $10 as he assumed leadership of the powerful Team Sky outfit following the withdrawal of injured reigning champion Chris Froome.
Porte's long-time roommate was the highest profile victim of a treacherous 156-kilometre fifth stage through the famed cobbles of north-eastern France.
Already suffering and wearing a splint from a wrist injury sustained in a crash the previous day, Froome eventually withdrew after hitting the tarmac twice more.
Porte's employers and teammates wasted no time in anointing the 29-year-old as Team Sky's new contender for overall victory and he responded instantly with two inspiring surges to take time off key rivals Alberto Contador, Andrew Talansky and Alejandro Valverde.
Froome said: ``[The team] have shown they are ready to get behind Richie, who's in excellent form, and I would like to wish everyone all the best. I'll certainly be cheering them on.''
Team manager Dave Brailsford, who was criticised for omitting 2012 winner Brad Wiggins from the team's Tour squad, said Porte was in ``great shape''.
``He's had a slower start to the season than normal and he's fresh. He's come into form at the right time and he's climbing really well.
``The reason that we decided to take him as our second lead rider is because of his climbing ability at the moment. Today was a big challenge for Richie, getting him over those cobbles, and I think he did ever so well.''
Porte, who survived a spill of his own on the slippery cobblestones, described the stage from Ypres to Arenberg as stressful but strangely enjoyable.
``It was carnage before we even reached the cobbles, and I went down after the second sector myself, but fortunately I only had a few minor grazes,'' he said.
``Given his fall yesterday, it was always going to be hard for Froomey to hang in there, so the decision was made on the bus that I'd have G [Geraint Thomas] and Bernie [Eisel] to ride for me, and they did an incredible job on the wet and slippery roads.''
As yellow jersey wearer Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) seized the chance to extend his race lead, Porte enlisted classics specialist Thomas to help him finish 20th, 2 minutes 11 seconds behind stage winner Lars Boom (Belkin).
This pushed Porte up to eighth place on general classification, 1 minute 54 seconds behind Nibali, before the three-week race hits the mountains.
``G and I were able to ride through the groups and limit our losses on Nibali, and although it was stressful, I actually began to enjoy it at the end,'' he said.
``It was completely different from the type of racing I normally do. G and Bernie were brilliant and really looked after me. This is their type of terrain and it was impressive to see how they operated.
``Nibali is in a great position. You can't take anything away from the way he rode - what he did was really impressive - but being in the yellow jersey comes with its own pressures and there's still a long way to go.''
Thomas endorsed Porte as the Sky's new GC contender, the team firmly believing the Tasmanian's lack of early-season racing will have him fresher than many of his rivals.
``We came into the race with a two-pronged attack, and now it's all for Richie,'' Thomas said. ``I saw Contador was struggling a bit on the cobbles, so I said, `Richie, get on my wheel, let's just smash it and see what happens.'
``Obviously losing Froomey is not good, but Richie is in good form and he'll definitely be up there in Paris.''
Porte agreed that the loss of Froome was a huge blow to the team.
``But he'll be back hungrier than ever next year. Now I have an opportunity to go for as high a GC position as I can. It's a relief, personally, to have come through stages two and five OK, and I'm looking forward to heading into the mountains now.''
6pt UNIV INTO HELIOS; Starts in UNIV, breakback goes to helios, loops on breakbacks.