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Richie Porte - luck goes a long way

Josh Cunningham
24 Aug 2016

After an explosive start followed by years at Team Sky, Richie Porte jumped ship to BMC. Now the he opens up about putting himself first.

‘In the end it all worked out so well for me, I suppose,’ says Richie Porte as he reflects on his career to date, his gaze somewhere out in the middle of Lake Annecy as we chat on its Alpine shores.

That’s the same Richie Porte who at the time of this initial meeting had just proven himself to be one of Chris Froome’s biggest rivals at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and when asked of his hopes for the Tour de France had replied, ‘Why not go for the win?’

The same Richie Porte who wore the Giro d’Italia’s maglia rosa as a neo-pro, has been part of three Tour de France-winning teams and, after a sterling performance at this year’s Tour, has arguably established himself as the outright team leader of one of pro cycling’s biggest teams. So why the self-depracation?

Richie Porte

After spending even a small amount of time with Porte, it’s clear he has the laid-back, casual demeanour so typical of his countrymen. And he wears it well. But behind that lies a steely determination allied with the honesty of a man with his feet on the ground. 

‘Those races are so hard. It’s just on – all day every day,’ says Porte, just two days after the Tour reached its conclusion on the Champs Elysees. ‘I’m fucked,’ he adds in a perfect exemple of this honest, matter-of-fact nature.

The words are spoken with all the delicacy and volume of one who is addressing somebody on their deathbed, but I come to learn that the curses spliced between words punctuate Porte’s sentences with as much regularity as commas. He is Australian, after all. 

Pooling resources

‘I was lucky enough to have two parents who swam every day, and so I was brought up around swimming pools,’ recalls Porte, who still uses swimming in his training routine now, doing up to 16km a week in the off-season. ‘It’s something I enjoy, and it’s a good mental break from cycling. I love riding my bike but it does get a bit tedious, so it’s nice to have another sport. If I’m in Australia - or in Manchester with my wife’s family – I’m always trying to find a pool to bust out some laps.’ 

With his roots in swimming, it seems logical that Porte went on to take up triathlon as a teenager and as such made use of the budding cycling scene in his hometown of Launceston in Tasmania. 

‘The cycling scene around Launceston is quite big. Guys like Matt Goss, Will Clarke, the Sulzbergers, we’re all from the same little town. We had an absolutely fantastic Sunday morning bunch ride and that’s where it all kicked off with the cycling.

Richie Porte

‘I was about 17 or 18 years old when I started turning up for the bunch rides,’ he adds. ‘Obviously I would get told to go to the back immediately because I was a triathlete.’ Obviously. ‘I got the stock standard triathlete treatment, but that’s how it is.’

Porte, now 31, continued to do triathlon seriously until 2006, when at 21 he decided he wanted ‘to give a red hot crack at cycling’ and moved to the rolling hills of Tuscany in Italy. ‘That was a big move,’ he says through a smile and a sigh, in a tone that again probably doesn’t quite do justice to the magnitude of the event. 

While continuing with the Australian Continental team Praties during the winter months, Porte would ship out to Europe during the summer, in the same way that Aussie trailblazers Allan Peiper, Phil Anderson and the like did years before him, to make his bid for professionalism. 

‘I went from being in a team with a couple of mates from Tazzie one year to being in a team all by myself with no English speakers the next,’ says Porte. ‘The team couldn’t have cared less about me – I was just another number. The Italian amateur scene is just based on tradition – for example you can’t go and eat gelato because “it’s bad for your liver” or something. You’re always told you’re too fat – like, all the time. It’s not the best scene to come up through, but if you have done it, when you come out the other side and turn professional it’s not a shock.’

After three years of chipping away Porte joined the Monsummanese Grassi Mapei team in 2009, run by former Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders and Giro di Lombardia winner Andrea Tafi, and found his legs. Third at the Australian time-trial championships, 10th at the Tour of Langkawi and stage wins at the Giro della Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia and the ‘Baby Giro’ were enough to earn a conversation with Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis. 

‘I still remember the day,’ he says. ‘At the start he was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll take you,” but by the end he was saying, “OK, you’re going to have a pro contract with Saxo Bank.”’

Sky’s the limit?

Richie Porte

In his first year as a pro in 2010, Porte won the opening time-trial at the Tour de Romandie and finished 10th overall, before three weeks of consistent riding at the Giro d’Italia earned him a spell in the leader’s maglia rosa, seventh place overall and the best young rider’s white jersey – a performance that put him firmly onto the world stage. The following year was punctuated mostly by a number of strong performances in time-trials, at which point Team Sky’s Dave Brailsford duly snapped up the Australian for the 2012 season – the first of a four-year spell that Porte clearly remembers with great fondness.

‘Sky are a brilliant team,’ he says. ‘I’ve been asked a fair bit about the environment inside Team Sky – by other riders, too, who say, “Sky’s high pressure, Sky can only ride off SRMs,” and things like that, but it’s just crap, to be honest. Sky have a very human feel inside. They’re a very close-knit bunch of guys in that team, and it’s part of the reason they’re so good. Brailsford chooses guys on their personalities, because he doesn’t want to upset the dynamics of the team. [Note Bradley Wiggins being left out of Froome’s Tour de France team in 2013]. That’s a massive part of having a happy team, and a happy team is a fast team. That’s why they win so much.’

Porte was, of course, an integral part of that Team Sky machine. As well as playing an important role in guiding Bradley Wiggins to 2012 Tour victory, as well as Froome in 2013 and 2015, he made his own contribution to Sky’s victory tally: two overall wins at Paris-Nice, as well as victories in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and Giro del Trentino, the kind of results riders can spend their whole career chasing, and that rightfully earned Porte outright leadership of the team at the 2015 Giro. 

‘For one reason or another it didn’t quite work out,’ Porte says of the experience, with a purposeful absence of further insight, knowing full well that it was the cumulative effects of a puncture, a contentious time penalty and injuries sustained from a crash that eventually caused him to withdraw on the second rest day. But by that stage it had been five years since Porte had burst onto the scene at the same race, and that seventh place remained his best in a Grand Tour. His only other real opportunity to act as Sky’s protected rider was in 2014, but a chest infection beset his bid for the general classification at the Giro d’Italia, only to resurface again – and metamorphose into pneumonia – the same year, when he was elevated to leader at the Tour de France after Froome crashed out. 

‘I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Team Sky,’ Porte says in summary of his time at a team where he was both a valued super-domestique and a proven team leader – at least at smaller races, if not in Grand Tours. But was it this dissonance in roles that, if continued, would eventually have caused his long-term career ambitions to stagnate? ‘I realised I needed to leave,’ he reflects.

‘For a lot of riders it’s probably easier to sacrifice themselves for guys like Froome or Wiggins, who are guaranteed winners,’ he says, highlighting a common problem for the trusty domestique. ‘Some guys get the
best out of themselves doing that, and I got some good results doing that too. But now I’ve realised that if I do get the chance to go to the Tour and lead,’ he reveals in light of his recent strong performance, ‘then I can…’, the words to best convey his subtle and modest confidence take a moment to come to him, ‘…be good.’

Taking centre stage

‘If you’re going to leave Team Sky there’s not many teams you’d join, but BMC was always one of them,’ says Porte. ‘I left because of the opportunities. I’m not going to sit here and say I can win the Tour, but I know my abilities and I think I can be around the pointy end come July, so I needed to go and explore those opportunities. That’s what BMC is for me – an opportunity to go and do that.

Richie Porte

‘I’ve led at races like Paris-Nice and Catalunya, and won them, and I guess that kind of leaves you wanting to explore more of your potential. But it’s a different type of leadership that’s on my shoulders now.’ 

As opposed to his ‘back-up’ leader role at Team Sky, Porte now enjoys the status of joint leader at BMC alongside the American Tejay Van Garderen. ‘Obviously I knew it was going to be a two-card thing with Tejay, but the road sorts out most of the battles,’ Porte had told me before the Tour, and in 21 days of riding around France it was he who emerged as the stronger rider. 

The 2016 Tour had reached its conclusion in Paris just two days prior to our second interview, with Porte finishing fifth. But it was a position that might have been better had circumstance been kinder to him. After puncturing at a critical moment on stage two, losing almost two minutes to his rivals, he was also caught up in the chaos on Mont Ventoux having been away with Froome and Bauke Mollema. And following another crash on stage 19, fifth place seems, although respectable, a little unjust. 

‘The Tour was just annoying, you know – I had bad luck the whole way through. Now that I’m back home in Monaco, I think I’m pissing my wife off a bit by being such a sad sack about it. But not to worry. Fifth at the Tour is fifth at the Tour, so it’s still a nice result.’

New relationship

Of course, the race was won by Porte’s former team leader Froome, and the relationship change between the two is one element of the BMC move that Porte is still getting to grips with. 

‘I’m good friends with Chris on and off the bike,’ he says, ‘and the hardest thing for me in leaving Team Sky was to have been so comfortable in a set-up, with some good friends – some of my closest friends – and teammates, to then be racing against them. It’s a little bit of a strange one, but it’s business I suppose. A race is a race, and Chris isn’t going to do me any favours just because we’re friends off the bike. If he needs to turn the screw on me he’s going to do it, and if I had the chance to do it to him I’d take it. That’s racing – you can’t take it personally.

‘It was kind of the same with G [Geraint Thomas] at Paris-Nice,’ he says in reference to the final stage of this year’s race, where Porte and Alberto Contador had distanced the race-leading Team Sky rider on a climb. ‘Contador started going bananas, and it was a bit like, “Mate, I don’t really want to ride with you because it will nail G.” But G would have nailed me if the boot were on the other foot, so...’ 

With anecdotes such as these, it’s clear to see the attachment that Richie Porte still has – and probably always will have – for Team Sky. His contributions to the team and relationships with its riders were closely, but not inextricably, linked, and the role he played there could be said to have suited Porte’s attributes and character well. 

But as we’ve come to realise, while there is the softly spoken, easy-going side of Richie Porte, whose quiet hard work made him one of pro cycling’s most dependable domestiques, there is another side too. It’s the side
that we rarely see away from the race environment.  

‘Riding into Paris with Brad and Froomey was satisfying,’ Porte reflects. ‘But this year, when I was riding into Paris fifth on GC and thinking, “What if those things didn’t go wrong?”, I kind of realised that maybe being
the support rider for someone else is the easy option. I’m happy now that I made the decision to leave.

‘For me, it’s the Tour 100%,’ he says without hesitation when teased about the possibility of targeting either the Giro or the Vuelta before returning to challenge Froome on the roads of France. ‘That’s why I joined BMC
– for the Tour. I’ll have my own opportunities next year to go, to go focused, and hopefully… not have any bad luck.’

Which, by the Richie Porte dictionary of downplaying phraseology, should roughly translate to: ‘I’m going to absolutely smash it.’  

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