Nicolas Portal was a cyclist’s cyclist. He raced as a pro and then became a directeur sportif… one of the best in the sport. He died of a heart attack at his home in Andorra aged just 40.
It’s difficult to absorb news like this. “Nicolas Portal dies of a heart attack aged 40.” Reactions follow swiftly. Shock and sadness come first, then it doesn’t take long before the memories kick in.
There will be others who will explain the impact of ‘Nico’ as they too respond to the news of his passing and, in the coming days, there will be many an anecdote shared about how he impacted people’s lives.
It takes only a rapid scroll-through of the social media tributes to realise that Nicolas Portal had a temperament that was universally appreciated.
“Kind.” “Generous.” “Humble.” “Passionate.” “Polite.” “Funny.”
The news has elicited thousands of messages with almost everyone involved in pro cycling posting reactions with their condolences and thoughts about Nico.
I never met someone Nico didn’t have time for. I never met someone who didn’t think the world of Nico. He was a true inspiration. His energy, his humility & his passion for life shone so brightly. Nico Portal, it was an honour to work with you. We will all miss you immensely.
— Tao Geoghegan Hart (@taogeoghegan) March 3, 2020
My first room mate as a pro. I Can’t believe the news of Nico Portal passing away my thoughts and love are with his family who he cherished more than anything. The friendliest most genuine, kind person you could wish to meet, words can’t explain how much he will be missed x
— Peter kennaugh (@Petekennaugh) March 3, 2020
My thoughts are with Nico’s wife and children tonight. He was the kindest, happiest guy I knew and always lived life to the fullest. Rest In Peace Nico pic.twitter.com/vfYF9slMQ3
— Chris Froome (@chrisfroome) March 3, 2020
He was a master tactician who could explain his ideas through the two-way in a calm yet convincing manner. And his words had an impact on the result. Riders would respond because he not only spoke clearly and concisely, he also offered sensible ideas.
Soon after he stopped racing, he was in a team car calling the shots for a wide range of cycling superstars.
My contact with him was at the Tour de France, face-to-face for interviews before and after the stages, but initially only in phone hook-ups while writing the live coverage of the race for LeTour.fr. It was a job that put me in contact with many directeurs sportif, and usually at times when they really did not want to talk.
If I was calling them while they drove behind the peloton, it was usually to get a quote about something that had happened during the race: an attack, a crash, a protest… but not usually anything trivial. Some would bark back: “Not now!” Some would mumble an inane response, uninterested in sharing news of the race.
Nico Portal was different. Amidst all kinds of mayhem, you could be led to believe he was speaking from a studio while wearing a fitted suit, straight from the tailor in a style that matched his perfectly modulated voice.
He was quintessentially French in a lot of ways but raced for much of his riding career with Spanish teams before being adopted by Team Sky / Ineos for his final years in the sport.
His English was glorious to listen to. He not only spoke clearly, but also offered considered responses, trying to assist journalists by giving them the means to finish their stories.
The memory that jumped to mind immediately after reading the news of his passing was of stage 16 in the 2018 Tour, when protestors stopped the peloton early in the race. The gendarmerie arrived to manage the situation and things got a little heated.
Pepper spray was employed to disperse the protesting farmers and allow the Tour de France to continue on the day the race arrived in the Pyrenees, the massif which was so much a part of a Portal’s life.
At the end of the stage that day, Portal steered the Team Sky car through the crowds, pulling up next to the team bus and was immediately greeted by a scrum of journalists wanting to know if the race leader, Geraint Thomas, had been affected by the pepper spray.
He unclipped his seatbelt while microphones were pushed in through the car window and he quietly said, “Just a moment, fellas. Let me get out and then we can speak.”
All the journalists immediately responded, stepping back, giving him some room and allowing him time to gain his composure.
Driving a team car in a race like the Tour de France can get hectic. Following the peloton towards the rendezvous with the Pyrenees can make it even more frantic. Adrenaline surges and anxiety is high… for all but Portal.
As he stepped out, he looked as relaxed as a man who had driven to the shop to collect a bottle of milk. He stood for all of five seconds, surveying those behind the microphones in front of him, then nodded and asked, “What can I tell you?”
Then came the volley of questions, all at once.
Nico later explained that he was “busting for a pee”, but before he even looked for a toilet he answered every question until the quotes given were sufficient for the journos to tell the story of the day.
“The police did a great job,” he told me about the management of the pepper spray incident.
“To make sure they could move the protesters on, they needed to use a gas. It’s something that can be really irritate the eyes and throat The wind was blowing,” explained Portal, “and all the gas [blew] onto the riders.
“Most of the riders needed to stop and clean their eyes and mouths with water, so everybody needed to stop for a couple of minutes.
“Obviously, I think everything was fine in the end, but it was a problem for everyone.”
Hours had passed since the protest and he no longer showed any sign of the sting in the eyes or choking in the throat. Rather, he wore a grin and maintained good humour and never said anything that would even hint that an incident that had brought the Tour de France to a halt had occurred.
He continued to explain how the gendarmerie’s actions affected the team, and never found reason to include himself in the story other than to explain the pain. Even when he talked about have pepper spray in his face while at the wheel of the team car of the Tour de France race leader, he maintained composure, even humour.
“We dropped down the window quickly because we had some issues with some spectators – obviously,” he added with a grin, “being in the Sky car.”
That was the Tour of 2018, when the daily news feed included explanations about what the so-called ‘fans’ had tossed at Team Sky riders and cars. Piss and spit was commonly reported, thus his reference to “being the Sky car”.
After weeks of having bodily fluids chucked in his direction from roadside goons, he didn’t seem to mind at all that he had now had a taste of something different.
“We got the gas inside the car and you quickly feel it in your eyes and throat. It was irritating me quite a lot in the car, so for the riders it was pretty strong.
“It’s certainly unfortunate,” he said. “The pepper spray was still lingering around when we went through. But I was lucky. I could feel something in my eyes, and a little tingle in the back of my throat so I used some water and had a bit of a wash and rinsed my mouth out… it didn’t seem to affect me too much. It was all good in the end.”
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It’s one of many anecdotes to be shared on a sad day for cycling.
Nicolas Portal has left a huge legacy and he’ll be dearly missed by many, even blokes like me who barely knew him at all but, because of his kind, gentle, polite manner, he was more than just a guy barking orders at bike riders. He was human.
– By Rob Arnold