On Sunday September 30, in the Austrian town of Kufstein, Richie Porte (BMC) will roll up to the startline of the World Championship road race. Decked out in green and gold, he’ll be leading a strong squad of Australian climbers; a squad assembled to give the Tasmanian his best possible chance of becoming world champion.
It’s the best opportunity 33-year-old Porte has ever had of wearing rainbows, and the best chance he’s ever likely to get — it’s more than 20 years since a Worlds course has been this climber-friendly. He’ll start the race as motivated as he ever has at Worlds.
Of course, starting Worlds is the plan. But as Porte knows all too well, things don’t always go to plan in the great sport of bike racing. Before Worlds he’s got the Vuelta a España to get through. And “getting through” is precisely the goal — simply finishing the race will be something of a victory for a man who’s suffered his fair share of Grand Tour misfortune in recent years.
Many had predicted that stage 9 of the 2018 Tour de France would prove tricky for the general classification riders. After all, cobblestones are hardly the preferred terrain of Tour contenders. With more than 20 kilometres of pavé to contend with, just getting through the stage unscathed was going to be a challenge.
Porte didn’t even make it to the cobblestones. Less than 10km into the day he was sitting on a small roadside fence, carefully bracing his right shoulder, fighting back tears. A crash in the bunch had sent the Tasmanian to the ground before he knew what was happening, ending another Tour before it really began.
He left the race with a broken collarbone — a much better result than the broken collarbone and pelvis fracture that ended his Tour on the same stage 12 months earlier. But for the 33-year-old, this year’s crash was far tougher to deal with.
“When the doctor told me that I needed to get in the ambulance, then it kind of hit me,” Porte said in a media conference call last week. “All the preparation, time away from the newborn baby, and all that sort of stuff — it was again for nothing. It really knocked me around, probably a lot more than it did last year because last year I was really unable to move whereas this year I felt fine other than when you try and do things like pick up your baby or whatever.
“The disappointment from a professional point of view was absolutely terrible. I mean, I’m not going to lie: I was in a pretty dark place for quite a while after and probably still, it’s a hard one to take. [It was] probably the most disappointing one to take, for me, so far in my career.”
It’s hardly surprising that Porte looks back on the 2018 Tour with great disappointment. For the second year in a row he had crashed out of a Tour he was among the favourites to win, and without having shown what he was capable of. Add to that an untimely puncture at the 2016 Tour that likely cost him a spot on the overall podium, plus ‘Wheelgate’ that hampered his chances at the 2015 Giro d’Italia and it’s no secret Porte has suffered in recent Grand Tours.
In the lead-up to this year’s Tour, Porte had taken the biggest win of his career, the Tour de Suisse — a great sign he was on the right track for success in July. When he crashed out of the Tour, he was sitting 10th overall. He believes he had a shot at challenging eventual winner (and former teammate) Geraint “G” Thomas (Sky).
“Yeah, look: G totally was up for it,” Porte said. “I trained with him just before the Tour and knew he was in impressive form — obviously [he won] at the [Criterium du] Dauphine. I’d like to think that I would have been thereabouts.
“On the Mur de Bretagne [on stage 6] I rode my pace and G was with me. On a steeper climb that’s normally where I’m better and he kind of suffers more but he was right there so obviously he was in the form of his life … probably like his drinking form right now.
“I don’t know — he’s always going to out-time-trial me but look: I would have liked to have taken my chances I guess.”
Porte struggled in those early days after his crash. He found it tough to watch the Tour disappear into the distance, and he spent many days at home feeling sorry for himself. But as tough as it was, there were a few silver linings.
For a start, it meant unexpected time at home with his wife Gemma and their newborn son, Luca. And where his 2017 Tour crash left him with injuries that took months to heal, Porte was back to riding much quicker this time around. He was back on his stationary trainer barely a week after the crash, and back on the road after less than a fortnight — sooner than he perhaps should have been.
“The trainer was absolutely terrible,” Porte said. “When it’s sunny outside and you’re sat on a home trainer it’s not much fun. I’ve been back on the road now for a while. I was on the road before the doctors cleared me to because I just had to for my head.
“I guess the risk was always that if I crash I make it worse but I guess that’s how it’s going to be anyway. If I crash at the Vuelta or something like that then the season is probably over and I’m probably going to have to have surgery on it. But that’s just one of the risks you have to take I guess.”
As Porte hints at, he’s got some big goals to look forward to. Up first is the Vuelta a España which begins on Saturday August 25. It’ll be just his second tilt at the Spanish Grand Tour (he was 68th in 2012) and it’s a race he’s very much looking forward to.
“Normally at this time of the year I’d be on fumes, starting in Australia [in January], and doing the Tour,” Porte said. “This year I think I’m more motivated. The Vuelta’s a lot less stress, a lot less build-up.
“Going to the Tour you’re talking to someone within the team every day whereas at the moment you get the occasional message off [BMC Sporting Manager] Allan Peiper to see how things are going. But it just feels … going there, young DSes, young team: I’m really looking forward to it.”
The Vuelta might be a lot less stressful than the Tour, but it’s still top-level bike racing. It’s also the first time Porte will rejoin the peloton after his Tour-ending crash. It would hardly be surprising were he to start the Vuelta’s first road stage with fears of another crash.
“I think when you have a crash like that and you break bones your mind kind of compensates, doesn’t it?” Porte asked, rhetorically. “You’re always a little bit more careful … [the crash] was on the right side — you’re a bit more careful on the right-hand corners.
“It’s just one of those things. I didn’t even know there was a crash about to happen — it just happened so fast and there were so many of us that went down that there was no chance I had to stay up.”
Porte will start the Vuelta as one of the big favourites — the seven mountain-top finishes give him plenty of chances to spread his wings. But he’s far from the only big name there; far from the only overall contender. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) will be in the mix, so too Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and the Yates twins, Adam and Simon (Mitchelton-Scott).
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) is on the comeback trail from a fractured vertebrae, too, and shouldn’t be ruled out. Likewise Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac), who is also looking for redemption after a crash on stage 9 of the Tour. In short: Porte will have plenty of competition.
Porte himself goes into the race with a far more modest goal. The last Grand Tour he finished was the 2016 Tour de France and finishing the Vuelta will give him a much-needed confidence boost in three-week races. Besides, Porte gives the impression he’s not entirely confident of his form.
“I’ll probably be a little underdone but that seems to be almost the way to go into Grand Tours now,” Porte said. “Yes I was in great form going into the Tour, but two weeks of doing nothing kind of takes its toll. So I’ll probably more build into [the Vuelta] more with an aim for Worlds.”
If the Vuelta is a focus for Porte, then the Road World Championships is a genuine target. The prospect of representing Australia has served as vital motivation throughout a tough period.
“Two days after I got home from my crash I got a text off [national selector] Brad [McGee] to say ‘Commiserations, but now let’s have a go at Worlds’, which was good for me to have that little bit of motivation in the back of the mind,” he said. “I think it’s a climber’s course this year … which doesn’t mean Sagan can’t morph into a climber and go for it I guess.
“But it’s a great silver lining — go to the Vuelta and prepare for a once-in-a-career Worlds, really. They don’t come around like this very often.”
Porte is right. The last time a Worlds course was this friendly to climbers was in 1995 when Spain’s Abraham Olano won in Colombia. A bevy of steep ascents, and more than 4,600m of climbing, will suit Porte well. If he can get away on his own on the final ascent, he could well be Australia’s first world champion since Cadel Evans in 2009.
And he’ll have a strong team around him, keeping him protected and in good position all day. Simon Clarke and Rory Sutherland will lead the team as road captains, while Damien Howson, Jack Haig, Rob Power, Chris Hamilton and Rohan Dennis will provide much-needed support on the race’s many climbs.
Porte hasn’t had a close look at the Worlds course just yet, but he certainly plans to do so.
“I saw it popped up on a Zwift ad the other day [and] it almost enticed me to get on to Zwift,” he said. “But no I haven’t [ridden the course]. I’ve obviously seen what’s been written and stuff like that but I know it’s up around 5,000m of climbing which is almost an average training day around here, around Monaco.
“I think [I’ll] get through the Vuelta and then we’ll go and have a look at the course after that.”
Listening to Porte speak there’s a sense that a strong result at Worlds has greater appeal than the same at the Vuelta; that a rainbow jersey has more pull than a red jersey. There seem to be several reasons for that: there’s the issue of his post-crash form, of the competition he’ll face at the Vuelta, and also, a feeling of not wanting to put too much pressure on himself at the Vuelta.
“The guys who have come out of the Giro, like Thibaut Pinot, they’ve probably based their season around it more,” Porte said. “But yeah look I want to go to the Vuelta … and finish a Grand Tour because it’s been a long time since and I think we’ll just see how it comes out.
“It’s easy to be motivated for a race like Worlds, [to] go and race with your fellow countrymen.”
After three seasons in the red and black of BMC, Porte will be wearing a different coloured strip when he pins on a number next year. There’s been no confirmation of Porte’s destination as yet — when asked, he wouldn’t confirm where he’s headed — but there are strong signs he’ll land at Trek-Segafredo. His 2019 racing program is unclear at this stage — there’s a chance he’ll even miss Tour Down Under — but one thing seems almost certain: he’ll be heading back to the Tour de France as a big contender again.
But it’s hard not to feel that time is running out for Porte. He’s 33 now, and will be 34 by the time the 2019 Tour rolls around — if he’s going to join Cadel Evans as Australia’s only Tour de France winners, he needs to do it soon.
“Cadel did it when he was 34, other guys have podiumed in Grand Tours when they were a bit older,” Porte said. “I think going forward, definitely that window of opportunity is closing. I think I’ve got a proper good go at it next year.
“I think watching how it went this year, hopefully that Tour route’s a bit more straightforward [in 2019]. I don’t think they’ll put another cobbled stage in and hopefully we might finish the mountain stages on top of climbs. Hopefully it’s a more straightforward Tour and I think that’s what’s going to suit me anyhow.”
For now though, it’s the Vuelta a España that’s front-of-mind for the Tasmanian. As he makes his way around Spain, he’ll do so with many nervous Australian eyes upon him. The hope, of course, is that Porte can get through the Vuelta in one piece, to finish a Grand Tour for the first time in more than two years. A strong result, or even the overall victory, would almost be a bonus.
Should he manage to win either the Vuelta or Worlds, those victories will certainly go a long way to make up for his frustrations of the past few years. But regardless of how the next six weeks pan out, there’s little doubt Porte will have unfinished business to attend to next July.