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Things are falling into place for Team Sky’s Richie Porte in 2015. As of Sunday the Australian time trial champion has six UCI-classified victories to his name, including overall victories in two, week-long WorldTour stage races: Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya. But Porte has his sights set on an even greater success this season: the Giro d’Italia.
Porte will go to the Italian Grand Tour in May as one of the big favourites. CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef caught up with the 30-year-old Tasmanian the day after his win at Catalunya to discuss the race, his preparations for the Giro and what has made 2015 the success it has been so far.
A little over a year ago Richie Porte abandoned the Volta a Catalunya on just the second day of racing. It was the second race that month that he’d been unable to finish — after Tirreno-Adriatico — and by the end of May he would also have DNFed at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Romandie. The illness that affected Porte in those races would also see him shelve his main goal for the season: the Giro d’Italia. Twelve months on things couldn’t be more different.
Porte took two stage wins en route to overall victory at Paris-Nice — as he’d done two years prior — and a couple weeks later he worked his way into the overall lead of and then won the Volta a Catalunya.
There were no great celebrations; just a flight back to Monaco to begin a week of recovery before Porte begins his build-up to the Giro. Any sign of the illness that plagued and ultimately cut short his 2014 season are gone. He’s not only healthy; he’s roughly 5kg lighter than he was last year but just as importantly — if not more so — the leader of the WorldTour’s individual rankings has his confidence back. And rightly so.
The following is an edited transcript from a chat with Richie Porte on Monday evening (Melbourne time).
CT: The Volta a Catalunya seemed to started off in strange fashion with three guys getting clear on the first stage and sharing the lead for more than half the week. There was an issue with the time checks wasn’t there?
RP: It was a catastrophe to be honest. If you’d asked me on Monday [after stage 1] if I thought any of the GC favourites could have won I would have said no. Pierre Rolland and those guys [in the break] — top 10 in the Tour and fourth in the Giro; they’re not guys you want to give three minutes to.
That was the thing — we just didn’t get time checks. And then when we finally did we were told via our director that the time gap was going to be “maybe more than 12 minutes”. It was like: “What do you mean ‘maybe‘?!” They were looking on Twitter trying to get time checks — nobody had a clue.
All’s well that ends well, isn’t it?
Did you go into the race with a plan to ride for Chris Froome?
Going into it Froomey and I were both joint-leaders. Obviously he’s been unwell. It’s hard enough to win these races at your top level of health and fitness but he was quite ill at Tirreno[-Adriatico].
It’s probably a blessing in disguise that he’s not anywhere near his top just yet. He’s recovering but I think come July he’ll be flying. He’s absolutely motivated. We obviously spend a fair bit of time together and to hear him talk about the Tour like he is — it’s going to be exciting for me after the Giro to get ready to go there and help him.
So there’s no concern that this is a longer-term illness, like you had last year?
That’s all it is; a short-term illness.
You outclimbed the likes of Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde on the race’s queen stage. How much confidence does that give you as you build towards the Giro?
Obviously it’s a massive confidence boost. I’ve been dedicated for the last five or so months, getting my health back to where it needs to be but also working on weight and things like that, which is pretty crucial as a bike rider.
There’s nothing I’ve done that’s not sustainable and I’m in a good place mentally and everything’s quite balanced at the moment. It just helps to be so motivated and then get these results.
If my season was to finish now I’ve already had an incredible season but I want more. I want to hit the Giro and take these guys on on these longer climbs. It’s one thing to win Paris-Nice where everybody said it wasn’t a strong field … but to go to Catalunya and win the race on a parcours that didn’t suit me? It’s given me a bit more belief in my ability at the moment.
How important to your performance is that confidence?
It’s most important in the the crucial stages where you’re not feeling 100%. Like the queen stage [of Catalunya] — if you’re coming into the bottom of a climb like that, on a day that’s 4,000m of climbing and it’s been hard all day, and then you still drop Contador and Valverde, obviously it does show you can do your best.
As long as I keep fighting … You’re not going to win them all, but you can win the battle that wins the war. That’s the approach I need to take.
No-one can doubt your ability when it comes to winning one-week races. What do you need to do to translate that into form in three-week races and ultimately to victory at the Giro in May?
Obviously it’s a good thing there’s a long time trial, which suits me quite well [ed. stage 14 is a 59.2km ITT]. Once you get through that initial part of a Grand Tour it settles down and it’s a bit more business as usual. Yeah it’s longer, but Paris-Nice and those races are probably the most stressful races of the year with the crosswinds and things like that.
[Paris-Nice and Catalunya] are a bit of a training run going into a three-week race. I just look at it that if I can do it for seven or eight days, just do it over three weeks. The reality is you’re probably going to have a bad day over three weeks and it’s just [about] trying to stay healthy. That for me is the key; to manage those bad days and to not [lose] it all in one day.”
Are you the sort of rider that likes to go out and recon a bunch of the stages for the Giro?
That’s one of the things with Sky: the attention to detail. We’ve got [director sportif] Dario Cioni who knows basically every road we’re going to race on. Obviously I’ve been to look at the time trial. I know some of the climbs down in Toscana because I used to live there.
Obviously you can’t do it all and then there are some of those sprint stages that could be decisive as well. But most of the major climbs I’m going to have a fair idea [about].
I also find you can always refer it back to a climb you know well. For me that’s a Scottsdale in Tasmania or a Poatina in Tasmania, or the Madone here, and things like that. That’s how I talk to [Team Sky sports scientist] Tim Kerrison — “what’s it comparable to of the climbs we do in training?”
You didn’t end up doing the Giro last year but if you had you would have done so with a reduced-strength team, given the resources the team threw at Bradley Wiggins’ Tour of California campaign. Do you have a sense of who will be riding with you at the Giro this year and are you happy with the line-up?
Obviously the Tour’s always going to take priority. I think [we’ve got] a fair idea of who will do the Giro and who will do the Tour. We’re going to have a good team: David Lopez, who was brilliant the last week, and [Vasil] Kiryienka, who’s just brilliant full stop, then Sebastian Henao — guys like these.
I think we’re going to have a pretty solid team. I think with our team somebody always steps up in the crucial moments.
You’ve been quoted in the press this week saying that you’re aiming for a podium at the Giro. Will you be happy with a podium or do you need to win the race to be personally satisfied?
A podium is massive, let’s not lose sight of that. For me it’s all about the podium and as high up that podium as it can be.
You’ve obviously been on great form since the start of January when you won the Australian time trial championship. Has it been hard to maintain that level and get even stronger from there?
I don’t think it’s been hard at all. It’s all about lifestyle.
Obviously I realised it’s much easier to ride uphills faster the lighter you are, so just changing the way you eat, not drinking alcohol… You’re a professional athlete at the end of the day; you don’t need to be putting alcohol in your body. You’ve got your retirement for that, don’t you?
In a lot of ways I’ve just grown up, to be honest. This year, not once have I overtrained in my off-season and also now it’s the ‘less is more’ approach to things. It all helps.
Was there a moment before this season that acted as a catalyst, that helped you to “grow up”?
It was probably when the team sent me to Manchester .. to four different doctors to have a bit of a check up and one specialist said “you do realise you had pneuonia during the Tour?” I should probably have stopped then.
But also the team doctor said to me ‘You’ve not been well, we can see that … but look at yourself — you’re meant to be a professional bike rider and Richie: you’re not looking like a professional bike rider.’
That was a massive wake-up call for me. I did have to make a few hard decisions.
You’re got a recovery week at home until Sunday. And then it’s off to a training camp. Are you heading back to Tenerife?
(Despondently) Yeah. I don’t see the diet and things like that as a sacrifice any more but Tenerife is definitely a sacrifice. It’s like going to a race hotel — every team’s there. Alberto [Contador]’s there, [Vincenzo] Nibali’s there, there’s GreenEdge guys there — it’s like a who’s who of cycling. It does sort of feel like a race environment.
The training days there are hard; training at altitude is not easy but I realise that it’s just one of those sacrifices that you do have to make. It’s also two weeks apart from my fiancee and things like that, the internet’s terrible — but I guess [I just have to] get on with it.
And from Tenerife you head to the Giro del Trentino, a race Cadel Evans won last year. This is the first time you’ve raced there isn’t it?
Yeah it is. It’s only four days but apparently it’s hard; two really hard mountain stages and then there’s a team time trial at the start.
You raced Liege-Bastogne-Liege for the past couple years. What made you choose Trentino over the Ardennes?
The Ardennes is a lot of sitting around in hotels. I sort of felt like I lost fitness by doing those, so no I’m not doing them this year. And I probably won’t ever do them again — you don’t see [on TV] how stressful those races are. All day you have to be focused on it. You never say never, but for now I’d rather just focus on stage races.
And you’ll miss Pais Vasco as well, a race you’ve done well at in the past …
Yeah, and [Tour de] Romandie as well. Now I’m leading the WorldTour points … I’ve said that to Tim [Kerrison]. Why don’t we go to Romandie? It’s four road stages and two time trials; I think I can go there and get [UCI] points. And Tim was like “Nah. Eyes on the prize.”
If I can go and have a great Giro and a big Tour as well I can potentially get points. Obviously Tim’s mapped out a plan and he’s pretty keen to stick to that.
Now that you are leading the WorldTour rankings do you feel a sense of responsibility to defend that lead? Or is it an incidental thing on the way to the Giro?
I think it’s just an incidental thing to be honest. I mean, it’s nice. My manager sent me a message saying “how’s it feel to be the #1 UCI ranked rider?” It’s just one of those things — it’s nice and all but we’ll just see what happens. Maybe at the end of the year if I’m still up there on points I might extend my season. We’ll just see.
The year’s only just starting but do you think about the fact that this is a contract year? Or do you just get on with the job?
(Laughing) To be honest with you I think contract will be done by then anyhow. Certainly the teams I’ve been talking to, [the WorldTour points are] not really going to be the deciding factor. There are teams that need the UCI points but if you’re talking with bigger teams it’s not the be all and end all. It’s not the most important thing.
Do you think you’ll stay at Sky?
I’m happy at Sky. I know what I’ve got. I think sometimes that’s the most important thing; knowing what you do have. There are other teams knocking on the door to my manager, who are prepared to give me the leadership for the Tour and things like that. That is something you can’t take lightly — I’m coming into my best years I think.
But to be honest I need to go to the Giro and prove myself there. I’m happy at Sky but obviously we’ll just have to see what happens.