Flashback – #49
With 10 issues of RIDE Cycling Review now available digitally on Zinio we are going to publish a feature from each issue online. In May 2010, three Australians won three of the prize classifications at the Giro d’Italia: Cadel Evans took the points jersey, Matt Lloyd was the King of the Mountains, and Richie Porte was the best young rider… we hark back to Richie’s first Grand Tour and get his reactions from his debut season in the WorldTour.
Richie Porte: the fish came out of the water… (1st: youth classification, 2010 Giro d’Italia)
For a neo pro to finish seventh overall in his first Grand Tour, his is an exceptional result for modern cycling. Richie Porte is a cyclist who exceeded expectations. Jean-François Quenet followed him for his remarkable Giro d’Italia journey.
On the final day of the Giro d’Italia in the Arena di Verona the antique world welcomed the girini – the cyclists of the race – one by one at the end of the closing time trial. The venue was superb. The atmosphere was fantastic with an attractive female announcer and different sideshows in addition to the arrival of the event’s stars. But where was the crowd? Less than half of the 12,000 available seats were occupied. In the morning, La Gazzetta dello Sport published a photo of Francesco Moser entering the same stadium back in 1984 when he dethroned Laurent Fignon in similar circumstances with a TT to wrap up the event. The assistance that the Italian received from motorbikes and helicopters to achieve this win remains more famous in the legend than the crowd, but the images are clear: the grandstands were overloaded. Around the arena, people had gathered everywhere – right up to the roofs. Italy was a cycling-mad country at the time… but apparently no more.
“Spectators will come back eventually,” said an enchanted rookie from Tasmania who was there to receive his trophy as the best young rider after three weeks of bloody hard and passionate racing. This is Richie Porte. He might be in his first year as a pro but he understands the environment he’s dealing with in his new profession. “I love my job”, he insisted. “Cycling is obviously entering a new phase of its history with the anti-doping policy. It’s probably better that I had to wait until I was 25 to become a pro cyclist.”
Porte has heard how hard it was for Brad McGee to come eighth in the 2004 Giro d’Italia at a time when the Sydneysider was battling away with the doping-free Française des Jeux team against riders who were using EPO, blood transfusions, growth hormones… or a combination of all. Different drug scandals have proven what cycling was about in the early part of the new millennium, despite the lessons people should have learned from the Festina Affair until the biological passport was implemented in 2008. McGee was Australia’s best finisher at the Giro until Cadel Evans came fifth this year. The world champion was followed closely in seventh place by Porte.
Prior to the era of blood doping, it was common to see neo pros making the top 10 of a Grand Tour. Experience counted less than pure talent. Porte’s three weeks in the Italian race were like a revolution for the sport. It’s possible again!
“When I joined Saxo Bank, I heard a firm speech against the use of drugs: it has increased my motivation to ride for this team. I think this is the best team for me to develop.”
From the start, there was a strong feeling at Saxo Bank that Porte was exceptional. It came from the legendary “survival” training camp during which the newcomer gave an indication about his lung capacity. In his first column for RIDE (#48), Richie revealed the anecdote of the underwater exercise the riders of the Danish outfit were asked to undergo. The best – Jens Voigt and Frank Hoj – had managed to swim 50 metres underwater when Porte threw himself in the pool. Some staff members and riders had a moment of panic as they didn’t see him come up for air for quite some time; he swam the distance of 72 metres with one breath. Since this exploit, he’s been called ‘The Fish’ at Saxo Bank.
At the Giro d’Italia, he became the ‘Tasmanian devil’ and made his state famous – together with Matt Goss winning a spectacular stage in the south of the country, and Cameron Wurf working hard all the way for Mortirolo stage winner Michele Scarponi. “There are only two islands we’re talking about at this Giro: Sicily because of Vincenzo Nibali and Tasmania,” reported La Gazzetta dello Sport.
From the first day in the Giro, Porte indicated that he’s not an average rider. On the streets of Amsterdam he completed the prologue in sixth position and went on stage to receive the white jersey as leader of the youth classification but the split times were strange: he only scored the 26th best time after 4.1km but was the fastest from there until the end. In the second half of the course, he rode three seconds faster than Evans and four seconds quicker than race winner Bradley Wiggins.
“I don’t know why there is such a difference,” said Porte who didn’t have any crash or incident in the first half. “I was a bit nervous at the start. It might be because of my crash the week before. Or maybe I rode too conservative. I guess I have to bang my head against the wall.”
Prior to the Giro, he won the 23.4km TT at the Tour de Romandie but that wasn’t enough to build his confidence yet. Only after the ride in Amsterdam did he admit: “Now I know I can be up there with the big guys in any kind of time trial.
“I’m not a prologue rider like Brad McGee was,” he added with humility and – as always – a huge mark of respect for his idol and coach. But it looks like Porte can do a lot of different things on a bike. He’ll become a prologue rider anyway and a great performer against the clock. During the Giro he proved that he can adapt to any kind of terrain. He came 16th in the gruelling stage of the strade bianche finishing in Montalcino and won by Evans in a day of rain, mud and cool temperatures. That stage seven put him back in the lead of the young rider competition after an interim of only three days by Liquigas-Doimo’s Valerio Agnoli after the team time trial.
“To be up there with these guys is unbelievable,” he said while looking at his name in the top 10 of the results sheets of the Giro led by Alexandre Vinokourov after a week of racing. The best was yet to come. He admitted that he encountered “typical Tasmanian weather” during stage 11 to L’Aquila, the cold and rainy day when he was part of a 56-man breakaway that strangely formed at the exit of a tunnel soon after the start with more than 230km to go. Porte was the highest ranked of them all on GC. In the town devastated by a terrible earthquake in April 2009, the guy perceived by Italian media as “funny” because he came from Tasmania, took the pink jersey.
“I’m pinching myself,” he said with the magic jersey on his shoulders. “It’s incredible. They (the favourites) let us go up the road and get so much time. I didn’t break any code. There were big names like Carlos Sastre in our group and a lot of power with riders from Sky, Caisse d’Epargne and my team-mates who have done an exceptional job. We are a young team and we were underrated at the beginning of the Giro, but when you see someone like Chris Anker Sorensen who won a stage the other day sacrificing himself for me, it’s fantastic.”
With a fortnight to reflect on a three-week span that looked like a highlights reel for Porte, he cites the day to L’Aquila as the best of the Giro. “Pretty early on, I was told on the radio, ‘Richie, you’re first on GC and the bunch is 17 minutes behind; you can ride into the jersey.’ We still had 230km to go and the last 20km of that stage was what you dream of.”
On many occasions, Porte couldn’t believe the support he got from a former winner of the green jersey at the Tour de France (Baden Cooke), a silver medallist at the Olympics and world championship (Gustav Larsson), a stage winner in the Tour de France (Nicki Sorensen) and the winner of stage eight in this Giro d’Italia (the other Sorensen, Chris Anker). That’s how it works, Richie: once you’re likely to bring results, world ranking points, media exposure and prize money into a team, riders who were once your idols become your domestiques! Every day after the post-race presentation he kept the traces of the pink lipstick of the gorgeous podium girls until he rejoined his team-mates in the bus of Saxo Bank.
Porte had a huge load to carry when he got the pink jersey. He spent the next night without any sleep. “I was sick as a dog. I had diarrhoea and a bit of everything,” he explained, but only 10 days later on the eve of the closing time trial, because he didn’t want to let his adversaries know about his problems. “My health was pretty bad and I didn’t really enjoy being in pink because I was suffering badly those three days,” he told me in a hush at the Passo del Tonale.
Porte was amazing again in the Dolomites. The GC lead would later go to David Arroyo, but the Tasmanian never lost the plot. He always limited the damage imposed by the true climbing specialists. His only real bad experience was on the penultimate stage as the race went up to Livigno. “I was dead,” he admitted. “I was finished. It was really hard to fight up that hill but my whole team dragged me back on.”
Thinking about those weeks of surprise, joy and suffering, Porte also got some flashbacks from the years he “passed under the radar”, according to his own expression. Not long after he switched from triathlon to road cycling, he came fifth in the Australian championship for time trial and fourth in the road race and the week after he was ninth at the 2008 Tour Down Under while a domestique for Allan Davis. A year later, again with the national team, Le Tour de Langkawi was still a very competitive event when Jai Crawford came second overall not far behind Colombian climber José Serpa, but he enjoyed the hard work done by his dedicated Tasmanian team-mates Porte and Wurf in Genting Highlands.
Italy made Porte a pro before the Giro d’Italia made him a champion. The 1999 winner of Paris-Roubaix, Andrea Tafi, nurtured him and convinced Bjarne Riis to get him a start at Saxo Bank, a team he himself rode for towards the end of his career in 2003 when it was named CSC. Before Christmas last year, Porte met McGee and a partnership has ensued.
The Fish didn’t allow ‘The Shark’ to swallow him. ‘The shark of the strait’ is the nickname of Vincenzo Nibali, the man from the second most famous island of the Giro d’Italia. Tasmania got more mentions than the runner-up’s Sicily. Inside the arena of Verona, a delighted Porte, who is no longer under the radar, said “this race will shape my career!”. He was over the moon but still conscious.
By Jean-François Quenet
Richie Porte: Q&A “…not a rockstar lifestyle”
“It’s amazing what happens in a couple of weeks. It’s gone from a stage win at the Tour of Romandie,” said Richie Porte a week after returning to his European base in Monaco after finishing his first Grand Tour. “That was the first big thing for me – and the Giro d’Italia absolutely blitzed that. It’s been incredible.” During the three weeks of May he turned from rookie to revelation. Here is his impression of the experience… “A good thing about being a young Aussie in the peloton is that all the other Australian pros go out of their way to help. People may say Brett Lancaster is not one of the big names but I like the way he goes about his work. He’s the one I give a lot of credit to, that’s why I talked about him on the day I took the pink jersey, he’s had the biggest influence on my career. When I was down and out racing in the amateurs in Italy, he and his wife Ally were the ones who took me into their family and it really helped me get through my three amateur years.”
RIDE: Where do you go from here? What’s the next step…?
Richie Porte: “After the Giro I had a week where I just relaxed. I ate out every night at Italian pizza restaurants and my head is good now. There’s a little bout of training and then I do the Tour of Slovenia and have a bit of time off from racing. Pretty much the whole month of July will be spent at altitude and getting some good training in and hopefully finish the season off strongly.
“I’m not really sure about the schedule for the last part of the season but I’m keen on having a go at the Vuelta a España. I’d love to go and do it but some people say it’s too much for a first-year pro. Still, I’ve recovered pretty well from the Giro so… yeah, fingers crossed that I do get to start in Spain.”
Do you ponder what’s going to happen in October in Geelong?
“Yeah, but I’m not going to hold my breath. It’s not really the sort of course that would suit me. Australia has got some of the fastest sprinters and best lead-out men in the world. They can take a squad there with, potentially, three or four guys who could win the world championships. Then there are other guys like Mark Renshaw and Brett Lancaster to throw in the mix. It’s going to be a hard year to get a start in the team.
“There are obvious leaders but there are also young guys who should be considered. Look at what Matt Goss did at the Giro… ‘Gossy’ is incredible. He should have won two stages. If he was a less loyal helper, he would have won twice!”
Do you now feel like you’ve got a little bit more Italy in you than Monaco – or you’ll just stay put where you are?
“I’ll stay here. Italy is nice but Monaco feels like home because there are so many other Australians here and the scene is great. It’s funny: you roll up for the 9.00am coffee shop ride and there’s Thor Hushovd, Stuart O’Grady, Baden Cooke, Matt Goss, Simon Gerrans, Wes Sulzberger, Tom Boonen… to start with I was pinching myself. But now it’s just the norm. They’re good fellas to have around and all are very supportive.”
You’re a part of the Giro d’Italia’s history. Winner of the white jersey, wearer of the pink, that must feel quite surreal?
“Coming through the Italian amateurs, I got a taste of what it’s like. In Italy, the Giro is the race. Italians will tell you that the Tour is the biggest race but the Giro is the most beautiful.
“When I was in the pink jersey, it was incredible. It was almost annoying that every second person I rode past would say, ‘Ah, maglia rosa!’ But when I look back now and realise that I’ve actually won the white jersey and things like that… and I have a lot of respect for the Giro d’Italia. What’s happened is incredible! Four jerseys in the second-biggest race in the world and three Aussies winning leader’s jerseys.
“The Italians couldn’t get enough of it. They loved it. I think that really does show where Australian cycling is going.
“I’m hopeful about the prospects for my team even though it doesn’t yet have a sponsor for next year. It sounds like it’s going pretty well for the future but down the track it’s everyone’s dream to ride for an Aussie team. Other people from other countries just can’t understand why Australia doesn’t already have a ProTour team. Certainly, we’ve got the quality and someone like Cadel could win the Tour de France.”
You sent an email during the Giro about Cadel and pointing him out as someone who helped you during the race. Can you give me an example of what that was about?
“Really for me, Cadel is always polite and pleasant. But when it really changed was the day when he lost the leader’s jersey. You don’t see behind the scenes but when we came over the line my team told me to wait against the barriers. They thought, maybe, I’d taken the jersey. Vinokourov had, but we weren’t sure at the time and I was standing and waiting. When Cadel came in, he stopped behind me and about 15 reporters jumped on him and starting asking questions that you wouldn’t want to be asked when you’ve just lost the jersey in such a situation – it wasn’t a nice moment for him…
“One of the cameramen then knocked me over, he full-on came at me and had no regard for my space on the road. I crashed to the ground off my bike and I wasn’t happy. It was Cadel who came over and picked me up and got stuck into the guy responsible for me. I think that’s how he is to us young Aussies. He really looks out for us. He was genuinely concerned for me. And that’s where my opinion on Cadel was forged.”
When you’re in focus, it does make it difficult. But you seem to have a habit of being able to make everyone choose your side. Was there any negativity towards your success?
“There are some guys in the bunch who don’t like you. That doesn’t worry me. There are a couple of guys who went out of their way to taunt me but I look at them and they’re not who I have a lot of respect for anyway. It’s little things like that which are strange but it’s part of being a bike rider, you can’t be friends with everybody. But when I look at those guys who are coming towards the end of a career and I guess I did more in my first Grand Tour than what they did in the past 10 years…
“One of these guys is the same one who Cadel has had problems with. It’s a small world, isn’t it?”
Can you explain the influence of having Matt Lloyd around, even if it’s just during podium protocol. Did he affect you?
“He’s a crack up! It was an honour to line up on the grid with the guy when he had his green jersey on. He lightens the mood. He’s one of the funniest fellas you will meet. He and I became pretty good mates just because of the situation we found ourselves in by wearing a leader’s jersey each.
“It showed what a hard man he is when he went up the road and put his whole race on the line. He attacked and took the jersey back and he thoroughly deserves it. That’s the jersey that 90 per cent of the bunch were going for and Matty won it.”
And the next night he just caught a ride home with a mate in a car and didn’t do much. Did you have a big celebration?
“No. Well, after the media conference I went back to the bus and I had two glasses of champagne. That was it. And then I was put into one of the team cars and driven four and a half hours back home to Monaco. It was an awesome achievement and this and that, but it’s not a rockstar lifestyle.
“I drove home with one of the Spanish staff. This guy, Josue Aran, is the best soigneur anyone could have. He’s incredible. He is a little beast who works 24/7 to take good care of us. He’s more like a physio. He’s awesome and that’s the thing behind the scenes that you don’t see, guys like him – they’re the ones that get us on our bikes every day with good legs.
“Behind the scenes we have bus drivers and soigneurs – who are like your mum on the road – they do your washing and cleaning and caring… it’s a stressful job some of the time but at the end of the day all I do is get up, have breakfast, get on my bike and ride it. But these guys work all the time just for me.”
You pay them back with little gestures like putting yourself in the leader’s jersey. What have you done with the souvenirs?
“The team got a few and I got my three pink jerseys. One of my white ones went to the local Italian restaurant and now I’ve got a pretty sweet deal when it comes to meal time. But the pink jersey – I’ve got three: I’ll keep one for myself. The other is for my parents and the third will go to Tassie to Andrew Christie-Johnston who started it all for me with the Praties team. It would be nice to pay him back with a special souvenir. I want to remember those who helped me beforehand.”
The Giro could have been the last race you start without any expectation. People are now paying attention to Richie Porte.
“Isn’t that cool? I can appreciate that. It’s special to hear stories like that. I heard that, even in Tassie, it was a big deal. People did care. And then you’ve got Gossy winning a stage and Wes winning races. Have you heard of a guy called Will Clarke? Watch out for him. He’s going places. He’s been in Belgium for a month and he just won his fifth race. He sent through some of his tests to pass on to my team and Brad McGee was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t really look at all the tests that get sent through…’ but he took a glance and immediately he sent me a text: ‘Hey, do you have a number for this guy?’ He is a beast. You’ll know a lot about him pretty soon.”