Late in November Lotto-Belisol rider Adam Hansen tweeted that it had been 41 days since he’d touched a bike. Richie Porte certainly hasn’t enjoyed the same amount of rest and recovery. In fact, when I caught up with him on Saturday morning he was nearing the end of a 700km week.
But speaking to Richie you don’t get the sense that he sees riding in the off season as a chore. Far from it.
“How good is this, getting to ride your bike?!”, he asks rhetorically as we meander down yet another picturesque, fern-lined road somewhere in the Yarra Ranges.
There are 13 of us on this particular ride, a motley crew of journalists, competition winners and sponsors, all brought together by Jaguar (a Team Sky sponsor), RIDE Media and the folks at Soigneur, a Melbourne-based company that’s all about cycling weekends away and, as their logo reads, “the road less ridden”.
The course designed for us by the Soigneur guys fits their motto perfectly — many of the roads on the day were new to me and for many of the people in the group the whole route was a new experience.
In roughly 5.5 hours of riding we headed from “Soigneur HQ” in Gladysdale up the 20km rolling climb of the Reefton Spur, across and down into Marysville then back around the simply stunning Acheron Way to Warburton before heading back to Gladysdale. The Great Ocean Road gets a wrap for being one of the most picturesque roads in Victoria but the Acheron Way is every bit as good with its narrow winding bitumen, its old growth rainforest and an almost total lack of motorised traffic.
We traversed several sections of unsealed road, bombed down super-fast descents and covered roughly 145km including nearly 2,400m of climbing for the day. Despite the real mix of abilities on the ride — from A-grade climbers to considerably-less-able cyclists like myself — Richie seemed content just to roll around with the group, chatting to everyone there and answering the many questions that were thrown his way. But on the few occasions where he decided to punch up a short rise or sprint for a sign it was impressive to watch.
Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to ride with someone of Richie’s calibre, I’m always impressed by their descending ability. Having the physiology and the training base to dominate in the hills is one thing but for mine, the skills on display when bombing a technical and sketchy descent are even more impressive. The fact I was able to keep Richie in sight for at least part of the descents makes me think he wasn’t even trying as well.
There was a moment towards the end of the ride, while sitting on Richie’s wheel, that I came to a realisation: this is where the majority of this year’s Tour de France was ridden and won from. Sure, Chris Froome might have won the race solo uphill and in the time trials, but I’d be willing to bet he spent most of his time riding behind Richie.
While the rest of us kicked back at the end of the day, Richie was off to the airport on a longhaul flight from Melbourne to Dubai and then on to Nice. From there he heads back home to Monaco for a couple days before his first pre-season meeting with Team Sky over on the Spanish island of Majorca. Richie admits that the glamour of travel has long worn off, which is hardly surprising.
For an Aussie pro living overseas the offseason is always going to mean travel, but the past few weeks have been particularly hectic for Richie.
In early November he was in Melbourne for the Oppy Awards where he won best male road rider of the year, an award he says he was honoured to receive.
“It was nice to be acknowledged for the season I had [but] I couldn’t believe, to be honest, that Simon Gerrans didn’t win anything after the fantastic season he had. I don’t know how they pick it.”
Richie also spent some time in Sydney for the Corporate Cycling Challenge before heading south for the Melbourne leg of the same event, which included a visit to Arthurs Seat where he took out the KOM against some other pros in a time of just over eight minutes. The week before our ride he was on a different Soigneur ride, rolling around with a group near Healesville and Mt. Donna Buang.
I asked Richie how he finds events like the Corporate Cycling Challenge and other sponsor commitments during the offseason.
“It’s good for your profile. I did a ride last week with the Soigneur guys and then this one and I probably enjoy that a little bit more [than the Corporate Cycling Challenge] — doing an actual training ride.”
Thankfully he’s also found time in among his commitments to head back to Tasmania to do things that aren’t necessarily cycling-related.
“I flew back to Australia [after his last race of the season in Japan] and spent some time in Tassie. [I’ve been] catching up with family and mates and drinking a lot of beer and eating what I want. It’s been a good off-season and I think you need that — it’s recovery isn’t it? It’s time for your body to be normal.”
But it won’t be long before the 2014 season rolls around. His first big race is the Tour Down Under in late January where he’ll come up against Cadel Evans. I asked Richie what he makes of the media hype around the Porte vs Evans battle.
“Gerrans — I think you have to throw him in there as well. [But] it’s certainly not a two- or three-horse race. We saw [Tom-Jelte] Slagter come down this year and have a brilliant race. I think it’s probably going to be one of the most competitive Tours Down Under and it’s a great course, cool city and for an Aussie, for your profile, it’s probably one of the better ones to win.”
As you might expect he’s not going to the Tour Down Under purely as training.
“It’s the Sky theory to go to every race to try and win it. [But] I think it’s GreenEDGE’s race to lose. Gerro’s in brilliant form obviously; already he’s been doing a lot of long rides. I think he’s going to be competitive and then Cadel also. I think it’s great for the race that there’s going to be so many Aussies targeting that race.”
While Richie won’t know his full race calendar until the Team Sky training camp on Majorca this week, he does have a couple of other goals in mind.
“I’d love to win another week-long stage race. Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico, I’m not sure which I’m doing. Pais Basque [Tour of the Basque Country]?”
And then it’s on to the much-anticipated Giro d’Italia where Richie will almost certainly line up as leader of Team Sky.
“To be honest I’d be disappointed if I’m not in the top five in the Giro. If all goes according to plan I think I can be there.”
In July Richie will put aside his personal ambitions and attempt to help teammate (and good mate off the bike) Chris Froome to defend his Tour de France crown. But there’s a long time between now and July and plenty can happen in that time.
With Richie about to head back to his home base in Monaco I’m reminded of his bio on the Team Sky website from last year which suggests that he loves his homeland of Tasmania “10 times more” than he likes living in Monaco. I’m keen to know if he still feels that way.
“I do. I think you have to stick up for Tassie a little bit being a Tasmanian but I just like being there and it’s so easy. I don’t have to put my bike in an elevator to go out training and things like that which I do in Monaco. At the end of the day I have to live in Monaco and that’s my life for the next 12 years or so.
I think Tassie’s just so simple: you know every second person, you see people you’ve never seen before when you’re driving and they’ll still wave to you, things like that. It’s just a small community and it is quite nice to go back.”
Here’s hoping he heads back to Tassie this time next year having had as good a season as he did in 2013.