By Julien Pretot
NICE, France (Reuters) – Team Sky came close to winning a fifth Paris-Nice title in six years when Sergio Henao claimed the overall lead on Saturday, with the Colombian hoping to dedicate a victory to under-fire team principal Dave Brailsford on Sunday.
Henao, who finished fourth in the seventh stage won by Australian Richie Porte, leads Ireland’s Dan Martin by 30 seconds and Spaniard Alberto Contador by 31 seconds going into Sunday’s final stage, a 115.5-km ride featuring two category-one ascents.
“I’m really happy with the team and with Dave Brailsford. We’re all with Dave. Dave is going through some tough moments,” Henao told reporters. “As a rider, I’ve been through extremely tough moments, so I really hope to stay in yellow tomorrow and to dedicate the victory to Sky and to Dave.”
Brailsford has come under fire for failing to prove what was in a medical package ordered by a team doctor and delivered to Bradley Wiggins at the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine.
Team Sky and British Cycling have both been subject of an investigation by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) into allegations of wrongdoing in the sport. Both have denied any doping violations.
Several Team Sky riders tweeted their support for Brailsford, although three-times Tour de France champion Chris Froome stayed quiet on the matter.
Henao, however, was focused on the bike, even if he could not follow Porte or Contador in the finale of Saturday’s stage that ended up the col de la Couillole, a 15.7-km climb at an average gradient of 7.1 percent.
Porte (BMC) salvaged his Paris-Nice campaign with the win after he dropped out of contention in the second stage.
“It was such a sweet victory after the disaster we had earlier in the week,” said Porte. “I take my hat off to the team, they never lost faith in me.”
Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Quick Step Floors) started the day with the yellow jersey but cracked in the final climb.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot, editing by Pritha Sarkar)