Richie Porte, The Genuine Article
If you wanted to visit a hotbed of Australian cycling, you could do far worse than head to the Principality of Monaco a few kilometres east of Nice on the Mediterranean coast. A large number of cyclists make their home in Monaco, not only for the obvious tax breaks, but also due to the vast amount of fantastic cycling to be had. The city itself is a playground of the super rich, but ride for 20 minutes or so into the hills and you’ll find yourself in a world of switchbacks and quiet country roads.
One rider who now calls Monaco home is Richie Porte. I visited Richie as he was between pre Tour altitude training camps. The Tassie triathlete turned pro shocked many with his seventh place in the 2010 Giro d’Italia, though perhaps that’s a little unfair given Richie’s steady rise in other races. A third place in the Australian Time Trial Championships behind Michael Rogers and Cameron Meyer was followed by victory in the time trial of the baby Giro. It won’t surprise most to learn then, that Porte’s first love was triathlon. Do those days seem a long time ago now?
Richie Porte: It does seem a long time ago! Nah, I do remember. I was pretty serious about it for around three years. I went ok in non drafting races, but in the drafting stuff I wasn’t that great. I got a bit fed up with it to be honest. I mean it’s a great sport, but even now, I’ve made a much better living out of cycling than I ever would have done in triathlon.
BA: So what was happening? Were you just getting smashed on the run in the drafting races?
RP: Yeah, pretty much. Actually I was. Someone like Craig Walton was incredible in non drafting races. He could win anything, but when the drafting races came in it all changed and he couldn’t win a thing. And I realised that I wasn’t as good as he was, so if he was having trouble then it was time to get out.
BA: You were specialising at the Olympic distance?
RP: I was. I was young and that was the way I wanted to go. But now one of my best friends, a guy called Joe Gambles, just made the podium at the Worlds in the 90.3 and I think that’s the way it’s going. That’s the most prestigious. At the time I wasn’t really interested in racing at the Olympics, I was trying to get a professional licence. But coming from Tasmania doesn’t really help with that sort of thing. You really need to be up on the Gold Coast or somewhere like that.
BA: How did you make the switch then?
RP: Well, Praties was a Tassie team at the time and I used to train with bike riders all the time anyway. And I did a couple of training rides with a guy called Tim Walker and Josh Wilson whose dad in my opinion, is one of the best pros to come out of Australia, just no one knows about him, and they passed my name forward to Andrew Christian-Johnson. Then the next thing I knew I had a bike given to me and I was off to the Canberra Tour and I got my arse absolutely kicked. (Laughs) It was a difficult transition because sure, I could do a good time trial, but on the race, what’s the name of that last climb? The Three Sisters? Out Uriarra and Cotter way. I’d get to there with the bunch and suddenly have six minutes put into me!
At that time Praties was one of several Australian teams racing on the Continental circuit and Porte raced with them in 2007 and early 2008 before heading to the Monsummanese Grassi Mapei amateur Italian team, whose director was none other than Andrea Tafi. This was a period of intense learning for Richie. The Italian amateur scene is a tough one, working on the school of hard knocks philosophy and talking to Richie you get the impression that having Tafi around as a mentor is something he is grateful for.
I used the term school of hard knocks quite deliberately. Not many people know, or perhaps don’t remember, but while racing for that team Richie suffered a potentially career threatening injury. I’d spoken to him about it a couple of years earlier and he was a bit reticent, not wanting to go too much into details. When I bring it up again in Monaco, he’s a bit more forthcoming, although it’s clear there are still scars.
RP: Mmmm...(long pause). Mmm...I got cleaned up in a race called Palma-La Spezia. We were riding through a tunnel and I got cleaned up from behind by a team car. It wasn’t a nice time. I was in hospital for a fair while. And I mean, well, I couldn’t really be bothered riding after that. I was laid up for six weeks and when I got out I was ready to chuck it in. But luckily I was in a good team. Andrea Tafi was in charge and certainly they looked after me quite well and I came back and won a race in what they call the ‘regions’. It was a big, important race and from then Tafi took me under his wing a fair bit.
BA: But you were still racing a little hesitantly for a while. I remember in that wet Herald Sun Tour that Stuey O'Grady won you were taking it carefully on some of the descents.
RP: Yeah, I was. A crash like that takes a lot of getting over. To be honest, there was one time I came back and did the Tour of Tassie and I was just gone both mentally and physically. I told Andrew Christian-Johnson and Steve Price “There’s my bike. My mum’s going to come and pick me up afterwards, I’m out of cycling.” And that day I went out and won the stage by about a minute forty-five! And out of my wins, that was one of the nicest. To be able to ride in the leader’s jersey through your home town with Mum and Dad watching, that was great. They don’t get to see me race much but they were there to see me win up Poatina which is one of the hardest climbs in Northern Tassie.
Perhaps the most important step however was still to come. It’s funny how you can’t see a chain of events until afterwards, in this case, Richie’s victory straight after his return from a crash obviously impressed Tafi, convincing him that Richie’s talent was obviously worth nurturing. Similarly, his good riding at the Nationals earned him a wild card in the UniSA team at the 2008 Tour Down Under. As it is that team’s policy to have a different rider in the break each day, this indirectly placed him under the noses of Brad McGee and Stuart O’Grady. So that when Andrea Tafi notified Bjarnne Riis that he had a rider worth looking at Riis was able to reference the two Aussies about him.
RP: Yeah, well first it was Tafi who sent Bjarnne Riis a message, but there was also a Tassie connection, a guy called Leigh Brian who is a trainer here in Monaco. The next thing I found myself talking with Brad McGee and Stuey here and then a meeting with Bjarnne, on his holiday. He said he knew I could ride but things were a bit tight with the budget. But then in the middle of the interview he said he thought he might take me on and by the end he said “That’s enough talk about the bike, I’ll take you on.” And that was just massive! Joining the team who at that time were the best team going around was amazing.
BA: What was it like turning up to training camp for the first time and you’ve got Stuey, Fabien and a Cancellara, all those guys there and here you are fresh?
RP: Mmm...yeah. Well, I had to leave Tassie in December so I only had four weeks there before coming straight back and I met Jens Voigt and a couple of the others on the flight across to Mallorca and it was fine. It was a good team, the Schlecks are great guys. Fabien was probably the hardest to get to know. But what really broke the ice so to speak was an exercise we had to do that was underwater swimming and I kicked all their arses! So, then Bjarnne and Fabien were on my swim team so they liked that and they gave me the nickname of ‘The Fish’.
BA: Do they still call you that?
RP: McGee and those guys do yeah.
BA: Brad likes his nicknames.
RP: He does, he does. (Laughing) But you know, it was such a big thing then, to turn up and ride with those guys, but like anything, it soon becomes normal.
It didn’t take Richie long to repay the faith placed in him. Despite crashing early in the prologue, he bounced back by winning the time trial at the Tour of Romandie. Was this particular win an unexpected one?