It was the end of the 2015 Tour de France and Richie Porte was at a Team Sky afterparty in Paris. Hours earlier, Sky had won the Tour with Chris Froome and Porte had played a key role in that triumph as a super domestique, so much so that the afterparty also served as a farewell for the Australian.
Team boss David Brailsford called guests in the darkened room to attention and made an informal toast to Porte, who in turn stood up and raised a glass.
Porte had signed a deal to join BMC from 2016 and vie for the yellow jersey himself after assisting Froome, and Bradley Wiggins before him, so successfully to cycling’s most renowned prize.
The 35-year-old was ambitious and capable enough to leave the lucrative British juggernaut but also humble, saying thank you and something to the effect of if it didn’t work out, he may be back.
Porte had led Sky at the Giro d’Italia prior to the 2015 Tour, abiding by insanely strict diets and monk-like routines from the outset of the season to be ready for it. It wasn’t a case of if the elastic band would snap, but when. And, it did.
In 2016, he entered the Tour as BMC’s outright leader and a yellow jersey contender, finishing fifth overall – his best result so far. Sky in an orchestrated pre-race press conference 12 months later targeted him, playing on a perceived weakness as a straight-faced Geraint Thomas said the maillot jaune was Porte’s to lose.
“With Richie it’s mental, it’s not physical,” Brailsford one time observed.
It wasn’t at all Porte’s Tour to lose. It was his third shot entering a Grand Tour as a contender and second title attempt at the Tour, which is like no other race.
“They would know wouldn’t they,” Porte mocked at the time. “I think that’s just one of the games that they play. At the end of the day, behind closed doors, they think they’ve got the guy to do it.”
To an extent, Sky’s mind-trick worked.
Days before Porte crashed out on a stage nine descent, he was stressed to the point of remonstrating with a handful of journalists including me. I’d questioned on social media why BMC on one stage had been working on the front when the onus wasn’t on them.
“You don’t understand,” my peeved compatriot had objected on the start line the next day.
Porte crashed out on stage nine again in 2018 although you could put that down to bad luck. Come 2019, he was content to just make stage 10 and then arrive safely in Paris, which he did.
“He finished 11th in the Tour and you had to see that way also, it was the first time he finished a Grand Tour in three years or four years, so it was always difficult, but for sure we had hoped for more,” Trek-Segafredo sports director Kim Andersen said in January.
Fast forward to now and Porte is sitting sixth overall as we enter the third week of the 107th edition, being played out amidst a global pandemic that, especially with a young family, he is acutely aware of.
Since January, Porte has downplayed his Tour expectations, focused on staying up on GC for as long as he can, not specifically the yellow jersey. He says this is his last Tour as a team leader and final with Trek-Segafredo. Porte plans to revert to super domestique duties at the race from 2021.
“I won’t be in Trek-Segafredo next year, I think that’s pretty well known, I’ve signed elsewhere, but we have to wait, nothing has been officially realised just yet,” Porte said of his future.
“I want to do a couple more years and finish in a role where I can go back to what I did in the Froome-Wiggins days. That was a little bit less stress on me, personally. That was the deciding factor,” Porte continued.
“I didn’t have to go for the biggest contract financially or whatever, it was to try and be happy in my last two years – that was my biggest goal.”
And yet, Porte’s performance at the Tour so far has been his best. He’s been calculating as to when, where – and where not – to expend energy. He’s made a point of letting the bigger teams, Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, control and has intelligently capitalised on that.
Porte on the first rest day said he was “relaxed” and enjoying the quieter surrounds from the strict, pandemic-related protocols in place and perhaps the reduced expectation he has perpetuated.
This year, there’s no Froome or Thomas employing mind-tricks to undermine and less of a media spotlight, so no en masse opinions. The biggest mental obstacle Porte says he has faced so far is missing the birth of his second child.
As the race gets closer to Paris, Porte appears to be riding more assured even though his team is depleted.
“The Tour is unparalleled in the amount of stress and drama that goes on but, to be honest, it’s actually been a nice Tour in that there’s not that much media at the finishes,” he said.
“And also, I know the fans are a big part of cycling, but it is kind of nice to have less of that around on the climbs and things like that, just feel a little bit safer without so many people riding along beside you. It’s not all bad.”
Porte at the end of the first week in the Pyrenees was in touch with chief protagonists Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogacar (UAE Emirates) on stage nine but struggled to match their accelerations when the pair went for bonus seconds.
“It’s one of those things I think with age it’s harder to deal with, is change of speeds,” Porte had reflected on the first rest day.
A week later on stage 15, to Grand Colombier, he was toe-to-toe with them in the finish, hitting the front first with about 300m remaining. Pogacar and Roglic came around him to place first and second, respectively, with Porte five seconds adrift in third.
However, the result elevated him to sixth overall – two minutes and 13 seconds adrift of Roglic – ahead of the final week of the Tour, which is so hard Porte anticipates riders will lose minutes, not seconds. That’s assuming teams pass another round of COVID-19 tests on Monday’s second rest day.
This is perhaps the first season, since leaving Sky, that Porte as a team leader hasn’t competed with the burden of being touted as Australia’s next potential Tour de France winner weighing on his shoulders. Cycling isn’t a mainstream sport Down Under, but the Tour attracts a wider and more commercial audience. Porte’s image, in previous years, has been plastered on billboards across the country, as the face of the race here. It’s in a way at odds with his personality.
He may live in glitzy Monaco during the season, but Porte returns to his native Tasmania every winter. He’s your quintessential Australian and speaks in colloquial terms that sometimes go over even my head.
He’s not it in it for fame, he’s in it for the love of and ability in the sport, which this season he can soundly go about.
After four years of trying, Porte’s not saying he’s out to win the Tour in 2020 but he’s not putting a number on what would define success either. He’s racing his own race.
In more ways than one, experience is paying off in the “twilight” of his career.
There has been a generational shift in the peloton. Porte’s rivals are considerably younger than him – Pogacar is 21 and Roglic 30 – and amply qualified, but the veteran looks like he’s enjoying racing. And a happy cyclist is a competitive cyclist, as they say.
I’ll toast to that.
Photo: © SWpix.com