After more than 3,300km and 83 hours of racing, the Tour de France is tantalisingly close to reaching its ultimate destination in Paris.
And, although there are only two Australian riders at this year’s race, there’s a real possibility that both will be standing on a podium on the Champs Elysees.
Sprinter Caleb Ewan has admirably managed to haul himself through the high Alps and, if his legs have recovered enough, could reprise his performance from last year’s race by winning the Tour’s final sprint on the cobbles of the French capital.
However, in terms of overall honours, Ewan is the best part of six hours behind the leaders and well off the pace in the green jersey standings.
Richie Porte though, is much closer to the top of the pile and is in with a genuine chance of making the overall podium for the first time.
Porte currently sits in fourth — which would already mark his best-ever finish.
If he is able to battle his way into third place, he will become just the second Australian to finish on the podium at the Tour de France.
Standing between him and a famous result is a 36.2km individual time trial from Lure to the summit of the short but sharp climb of La Planche des Belles Filles.
Is Richie Porte a good time trial rider?
Porte has a handful of professional time trial victories to his name, although none of note since the 2017 Criterium du Dauphine.
However, this is not a classic time trial.
Due to the extreme ramp up La Planche des Belles Filles to finish the stage, climbing ability will be important — and that could play in his favour.
Thanks to his exploits at the Tour Down Under, Porte is known as the King of Willunga Hill.
Porte won the stage that ends on Old Willunga Hill every year between 2014 and 2019 — which should put him in good stead to tackle tonight’s stage.
However, La Planche des Belles Filles is almost double the length (5.9km to 3.7km) and noticeably steeper (8.5 per cent to 7 per cent) than Willunga Hill.
There is little doubt that the Tour summit is harder than its South Australian counterpart, with a brutal 20 per cent ramp in the closing stages that will have the weaker climbers zigzagging all over the road just to stay upright.
Despite that, the Tasmanian’s pedigree on climbs like that can’t hurt.
Who are Richie Porte’s closest competitors?
Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar (+59 seconds) are relatively clear of the chasing pack — and are both excellent time trialists.
Roglic won three individual time trials in grand tours last year — although the race leader was pipped (by just nine seconds) at the Slovenian national championships in June by Pogacar.
The battle for the overall lead is still likely to be between the two Slovenians but, with such a brutal ramp up to the summit of the final climb, contenders could lose minutes if they misjudge their effort and run out of gas.
So the Slovenian pair are far from out of the woods yet, meaning third-placed Miguel Angel Lopez should be a genuine target for Porte.
The Colombian showed he has good climbing legs after his impressive win in stage 17, but Porte should have his match on the flat.
There is precedent for Australians making late charges in Tour de France time trials.
Cadel Evans trailed Andy Schleck by 57 seconds heading into the 20th stage, a 42.5km time trial in Grenoble.
However, he overhauled the notoriously poor time-trialist Schleck and his brother Frank to claim a historic victory and wear the yellow jersey into Paris.
It’s not just those above Porte in the rankings that pose a threat, though.
Spaniards Mikel Landa and Enric Mas are both within touching distance of Porte, which might make things interesting.
Can Porte make up time on the final stage?
If the time gaps are still small heading into the final stage, could Porte attack his rivals and potentially win back seconds to get on the podium?
For a variety of reasons, that’s not really likely, unfortunately, which is why everything rides on the penultimate time trial stage.
Part of the reason for that is one of the many instances of cycling etiquette, such as not attacking the leader if he suffers a mechanical.
Almost every year since the Tour peloton first rolled to a halt on the Champs Elysees in 1975, the final stage has been a procession, allowing the winning team a chance to enjoy their victory after a brutal three weeks of racing.
Even when the Tour has been nail-bitingly close on the final stage, there have been no attempts to attack the leader from the man in second.
Want an example? Cadel Evans trailed Alberto Contador by 23 seconds in the 2007 edition of the race and still did not attack into Paris.
This was mostly for the other, principle reason. Practicality.
The final stage is always as flat as a pancake and relatively short — this year’s 122.5km makes it the shortest of the Tour by around 20km (with the exception of the Time Trial).
On such a course, it would take an enormous effort to create a breakaway from the peloton and then stay away on the Champs Elysees circuit, testing the tired legs of your teammates to the limit.
And it’s not just the leader’s team you’d be working against.
The sprinters teams, such as Caleb Ewan’s Lotto Soudal, would be loath to allow the race to end in anything other than a bunch sprint.
Has the last stage ever been a race for overall position?
Although it has become commonplace to have a processional final stage, there have been occasions where that hasn’t happened — and it’s lead to some stunning drama.
The only time in recent years that there has been a change in leader on the final day just happened to feature the closest finish in Tour de France history.
In 1989, Greg Lemond overhauled Frenchman Laurent Fignon in a final stage time trial to win by just 8 seconds.
No Frenchman has ever come so close to winning the Tour since then, and although it might be churlish to suggest that the mental scars from that incident has meant no Tour de France director would dare end a Tour in such a way again, it probably hasn’t helped.
At the 2017 Giro d’Italia, Tom Dumoulin won a time trial on the final stage into Milan to overhaul Nairo Quintana by 31 seconds.