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In the early hours of July 24, 2011, cycling fans around Australia sat glued to their TVs, watching the penultimate stage time trial of the Tour de France. On the roads around Grenoble, Cadel Evans was putting two and a half minutes into race leader Andy Schleck, ensuring 34-year-old Evans would take yellow and become the first Australian to win the world’s biggest bike race.
Nine years on, this past Sunday morning, the feeling was much the same for those Aussies who’d stayed up to watch the 2020 Tour. Again it was a penultimate-stage time trial; again it was an Australian soaring to a podium finish at the Tour de France. With third on the stage, Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) had jumped from fourth to third overall to snare the first Grand Tour podium of his tumultuous and storied career.
Of course third at the Tour de France isn’t first. But for Porte and his legion of fans back home, it might as well have been.
“To finally crack the podium, that’s the picture I want on the wall at home — in Paris on the podium,” Porte said afterwards. “It’s just so incredible to finally do it — it feels like a victory to be honest.
“It’s been a long journey with the battles I’ve had and the drama along the way, so I’m just so happy to finally be on the podium in the Tour de France.”
Porte’s career has long been marked by a sense of unfulfilled potential. At the 2010 Giro d’Italia, in his debut season at WorldTour level, Porte finished seventh overall and won the best young rider jersey. It was a result that suggested a Grand Tour victory could be in the Tasmanian’s future.
In the years that followed, Porte became one of the world’s best in one-week stage races. He won Paris-Nice twice, the Tour de Suisse, the Tour de Romandie, the Volta a Catalunya, the Volta ao Algarve, and his home race, the Tour Down Under, twice. Two runner-up finishes at the Criterium du Dauphine and one at the Tour of the Basque Country only bolstered his stage-race credentials. But success over three weeks proved ever elusive.
It was partly a case of opportunity. At Saxo Bank-Sungard he rode in the service of Alberto Contador; at Sky he supported Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. For all three he proved to be an excellent domestique in the mountains. What limited opportunities he did have at Grand Tours didn’t bear fruit.
Like at the 2014 Tour when Porte assumed leadership of Team Sky after Froome crashed out. Porte climbed as high as second overall in that race before losing nearly nine minutes on stage 13. At the 2015 Giro d’Italia a puncture on stage 10 saw Porte lose nearly three minutes while sitting third overall — two minutes of that for taking a wheel from compatriot (but rival) Simon Clarke.
The following year Porte departed Sky in search of more chances to lead a Grand Tour team. He joined BMC and headed to the 2016 Tour as the team’s outright leader. An untimely mechanical on stage 2 saw Porte lose nearly two minutes, ending his GC tilt before it’d really even begun. By Tour’s end he’d battled his way to fifth overall — a commendable result and a high-water mark in his Tour career to that point. Without the time loss from his stage 2 mechanical, Porte would have finished second overall.
And then began “The Curse of Stage 9”.
At the 2017 Tour, a horror crash while descending the Mont du Chat saw Porte leave the race in an ambulance with a fractured pelvis and collarbone. He was just 30 seconds off the overall lead at the time. A year later, another stage 9 crash saw Porte depart the Tour with a broken collarbone. He’d been less than a minute off the overall lead and ahead of most of the GC contenders.
Porte got through the 2019 Tour relatively unscathed, and rode into Paris in 11th overall — a respectable result for his new team Trek-Segafredo, but not the result he’d hoped for. It seemed like Porte’s window had closed; that his chances of a Tour de France podium were behind him.
Indeed when Porte lined up at the start of the 2020 Tour de France — his 10th visit to the race — he did so with few expectations on his shoulders. With pre-race favourites Primoz Roglic and Egan Bernal hogging the limelight, Porte’s chances were barely spoken about. So when Porte lost time in the crosswinds on stage 7, it was almost expected, so conditioned was the cycling public to Porte’s ill-fortune.
That would proved to be a tumultuous 24-hour period for the Australian. In a post on Instagram he described the time loss as “bitterly disappointing” before announcing that his wife Gemma had just given birth to the couple’s second child. “Hurts more than words can express to miss the birth of your child but thank you @treksegafredo for being so supportive,” Porte wrote. “Will be a long and tough race mentally now but the biggest gift awaits after Paris.”
As the Tour wore on, Porte’s racing fortunes took a turn for the better. He got past the dreaded stage 9 without incident — he’d later call it “stage 8b” on Instagram — and rose steadily through the ranks. But not without a few anxious moments.
On stage 13 Porte edged inside the top 10 for the first time. A day later a double puncture on the run-in to Lyon threatened his GC position, but a bike swap from nearby teammate Kenny Elissonde saved the day. On the Grand Colombier on stage 15, Porte rode brilliantly, finishing third and moving to fifth overall. And then on stage 17, on the brutally steep slopes of the Col de la Loze, Porte again looked strong, slogging his way to fifth on the day and fourth overall.
The following day brought more drama. While sitting fourth overall, Porte punctured on a section of gravel after the day’s penultimate climb. A frenetic chase followed but Porte was ultimately able to rejoin the GC favourites and maintain his GC position. Another crisis averted.
And so Porte’s podium chances would come down to the stage 20 time trial. He’d need 100 seconds over Miguel Angel Lopez by the top of La Planche des Belles Files. In the end it wasn’t particularly close — while Tadej Pogacar was turning the race upside down and rewriting history, Porte was taking nearly five minutes off Lopez, to slot comfortably into third.
“With three kilometers to go, my DS Kim Andersen told me on the radio I was going to get my dream and it was such a sweet moment,” Porte said.
After so many setbacks over so many years, Porte had finally achieved his Tour podium. It’s hard to imagine anyone begrudging him that result.
An even greater joy awaits Porte back home in Monaco: meeting his daughter Eloise for the first time. It will be an emotional rendezvous, for certain, and one that will only be heightened by Porte’s recent success at the Tour.
“I came here and I knew I had a mission to achieve,” Porte said. “To miss the birth — I feel like this goes a little bit of the way to make it worthwhile.”
When this strange, COVID-affected season draws to a close, so too will Porte’s time with Trek-Segafredo. It’s not clear where he’s heading yet, but rumours suggest Ineos Grenadiers where he’s expected to slip back into super domestique mode for the final years of his career.
He can now do that with tremendous satisfaction, knowing that after so many stumbles and falls, he has finally achieved the Grand Tour podium he seemed destined for.