The trouble with Richie

Saxo Bank-Sungard's Richie Porte climbs Checker Hill at the 2011 Tour Down Under (Image: Sirotti)

Following a remarkable neo-pro year, everyone assumed Richie Porte would have his own way, methodically moving upwards into the role of a Grand Tour rider. But as in life, cycling does not always work out the way you want it to, as he tells Anthony Tan on the eve of his second Giro d’Italia.

The inimitable roar of motorbikes, revving out their mighty engines without a care for the well-heeled residents’ desire for quiet, punctuates our hour-long phone conversation. I recall hearing that noise before and first-hand, prior to the start of the 2009 Tour de France: it can only be Monaco.

It seems not to bother Richie Porte on this Monday morning, who has just returned from the six-day Tour de Romandie. He rode a great individual time trial on the penultimate day, coming within two seconds of victory. But he finished 121st overall out of 133 finishers, lucky last being his compatriot Mark Renshaw, who, like the Tasmanian, will be joining him at the year’s first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, starting this Saturday in Turin.

Almost 50 minutes behind overall winner Cadel Evans is uncharacteristic for Porte.

The year before he won the Romandie time trial by 26 seconds – an eternity in time trial parlance. He also finished 10th overall, two minutes behind Simon Spilak, who was elevated after Alejandro Valverde had his 2010 results voided, following the decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to suspend the Spaniard for two years.

A month later Porte was touted as the revelation of that year’s Giro d’Italia and one of the hottest Grand Tour prospects, having enjoyed a brief spell in the maglia rosa and finishing 7th overall, as well as taking out the best young rider’s jersey.

“It [taking the leader’s jersey] didn’t really sink in till I lost it. It was so stressful,” Porte told me afterwards, once the adrenalin levels had returned to status quo and he had time to reflect.

“It was a hard Giro. I didn’t really crack. I lost time in some of the mountain stages, but I’m only going to get better. It’s exciting,” he said of his future.

Later in the season, a spate of strong fourth places – at the Eneco Tour, Tour of Britain, and the road world championship time trial – along with 10th place at the Clásica San Sebastián, reaffirmed his talent, and the fearlessness of youth as a 25-year-old neo-pro.

The bad kind of different

This year has been different. His time trialing has been solid though not spectacular and, well, that’s about it.

“Paris-Nice, I wasn’t too bad, but after that,” he says, “I just wasn’t able to get on top of things. After Paris-Nice I’ve been basically sick the whole time and me [acting like a] neo-pro, I tried to push through it and kept training. And I went to Pays Basque and every day I was in [the] gruppetto.

“Castilla y León was a bit different, riding for Alberto [Contador], and I think that’s why I could go to the Giro, because I was good enough to work on the front when he was there.

“But certainly, my health hasn’t been that great. It’s something I’m going to have to look into, the whole allergy issue.” (Following the Tour de France – which, until an eleventh-hour call-up last Friday, was the only Grand Tour he was going to ride this year – Porte will go to Belgium for three days, accompanied by a Saxo Bank team physician, in an attempt to solve what’s been bugging him.)

“The team doctors tried a few different things and in the end, they put me on strong antibiotics, which I was on through Romandie. And I think it’s worked. Now’s about the first day I haven’t been all blocked up and stuff. It’s three months into the season and I’m only just starting to get healthy again.

“Most cyclists are hypochondriacs but I really have been down, lately,” says Porte.

“It’s hard going to races and people look at you to go ride GC and this and that. [As] a neo-pro, getting the pink jersey and the white jersey [at the Giro] and that... You just get pressure. I tried to attack in Castilla y León and I was 13 minutes down and they wouldn’t let me go anywhere. There’s no charity now. I get in the break and guys won’t swap off with you, stuff like that. [But] then there’s guys like [Philippe] Gilbert, and he gets [in the right break] and wins every Classic he starts...”

Why go to the Giro?

Why the hell did you agree to do the Giro, then? You don’t sound like you’re ready...

“Brad [McGee, Saxo Bank team manager] sort of took me aside and told me now I’m racing it. I mean, it’s not ideal, is it?

“To be honest, there’s no stress. When I sat down and talked to Brad and Bjarne [Riis], my plan was to go to the Tour and not ride GC and just follow wheels. Brad said to me that’s still the plan.

“That’s why they’re sending me to the Giro, to ride with Alberto. I rode Castilla y León with him, and he sort of took me under his wing a bit. He probably looked after me better than he looked after himself. And that’s why I’m going to ride with him. He probably is the best guy to learn from.”

But what if CAS upholds either of the appeals from the UCI and WADA, and Contador is ruled out of the Tour de France? Given the demands of both, and that apart from Contador, not one Tour contender is racing the Giro this year, aren’t you concerned about putting yourself in a hole?

“I disagree. If I can get through the Giro, then I think that’s going to shape my Tour. I talked to Brad about it and he’s like, ‘When you get a sniff of Paris, that’s what’ll keep you going.’

“I’ll put myself in a body-bag to get to Paris. A lot of guys do,” he says.

“Hopefully I can go to the Giro and I can get some confidence. Because at the moment, I think that’s the biggest thing lacking for me. You go to these races like Romandie last year where I was up for GC; now I’m finishing in the group 20 minutes down the road. I just need to go and get the confidence.”

“Don’t look for me in the mountains”

While I’m no physician or psychologist, there appears at present to be a few conflicting emotions whirling in the mind of Porte. And I’m still not convinced riding the Giro, as unforgiving as this one is, for a bona fide GC contender like Contador is the best thing before your maiden voyage to the Tour France.

Still, it’s comforting to know Jesus Hernandez and Daniel Navarro (along with Contador, Porte nicknames ‘the Spanish Armada’) will be expected to perform the bulk of the work in the Giro’s high mountains, where there are no less than 39 mountain passes to be traversed, including seven mountaintop finishes.

“They’re [Hernandez and Navarro] in the best form they’ve ever been in. In some ways it’s good to get the late call-up because it is a parcours that’s pretty intimidating. Alberto’s come out and said that it scares him... But it’s Alberto’s job to be scared; it’s mine to line it out a little bit in the early stuff for him – then [afterwards] there’s no pressure on me. It’s not like I’m battling for the white jersey again.

“For me personally, I’m going to go to the Giro and if I’m not needed for work, then I’m going to ride in the gruppetto. The team’s not going to ruin me,” he says, though perhaps more to reassure himself than me.

“Don’t look for me in the high mountains because I won’t be there – my job is to get [Contador] to the bottom of it.

“Yeah, it’d be nice to spend a little more time at home with my girlfriend, but it’s a job, isn’t it?”

If you spent too much time with her you might get bored, so maybe that’s why Bjarne selected you, I suggest, tongue-in-cheek.

“She’s asleep on the couch... Maybe she’s bored with me!”

The anger in Alberto

How do you get along with Contador? He comes across as rather aloof in press conferences I tell Porte, which, for the cynical journalist, tends to arouse suspicion.

“What you see in the media of him is not fair; it doesn’t really represent what he is actually like. He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever ridden with.”

Another motorbike zooms past, initiating a break in thought, before Porte adds: “Alberto’s got a bit more anger in him at the moment.”

What about riding with him – does it stress you, the media attention he brings? What’s the vibe like in the team?

“Certainly haven’t felt it, racing with him. But going to the Giro... it’s the second-biggest race and I guess that’s really going to be the time that will tell. But the team’s still a happy place.

“Last year at the Giro, it was with a couple of young guys and a more relaxed director. If it’s anything like that I’d be surprised.”

There’s a plan, Stan...

I redress season so far with him, and ask whether his performances in the mountains have come at the expense of increased training on his time trial bike. “I’ve actually been doing more in the mountains than before. Now, I’m doing a lot behind the motorbike. But yeah, I do have the time trial bike at home this year, and [I’m] going out on that quite often. Bjarne did quite a lot of work at the training camp in Majorca [in January] on my time trial position.

“I did a mountain test at training camp and Alberto, in a 10K climb, only put 38 seconds into me. So I can climb if I really put my mind to it. I just need to get the health right and I’ll be there, I’ll be able to back up.”

It’s worth remembering that his exceptional 2010 Giro notwithstanding, Porte never finished in the front group in the big mountain stages. It was his race savvy that saw him do well on the early windswept stages in Holland, then on the eleventh stage to L’Aquila, he made the crucial 56-man split that by day’s end, had earned him and eventual second overall, David Arroyo, a 12-minute advantage over the main contenders and a three-day spell in the maglia rosa.

From that point onwards Porte did the sensible thing and rode within his capabilities, limiting his losses on the summit finishes to the Zoncolan (that will again feature on Stage 14 of this year’s Giro), Aprica and Passa del Tonale, as well as the mountain time trial to the Plan de Corones. To put this in perspective, overall winner Basso was 11’49 in arrears of Porte after Stage 11; by the end of the race Porte was 7’22 behind the two-time Giro champion, who this year will not be defending his crown, opting to ride the Tour de France instead.

“I’m the third-leanest guy on the team but I’m still chunky. So [the sport directors] want me to go and do a Grand Tour and your body changes after a Grand Tour, so it’s a long-term plan. [Saxo Bank] really want me there in the future. Riding the Giro is a long-term plan.

“I’m around 62 kilo... I mean, if I get much lighter I’m probably going to lose my [ability to] time trial, so... It’s a hard one, and the funniest thing is, no-one can really tell you what your ideal weight is. I think whatever weight I come out at – especially this Giro – it’s probably what I need to be at.

“When all’s said and done, on a hard mountain stage I make the selection; I’m just getting popped not that far from the top. In Paris-Nice I got dropped 200 metres from the top of a hard climb. So I am getting better. The thing is, when I blow up, I blow up good and proper!”

Speaking of plans, a medium-term goal for Porte is riding the road time trial at the 2012 London Games. “And more than others,” he says, “I have to show that I’m the first or second-best time trialer to get the spot. It’s going to be hard, but that’s what I want to do. And if I keep getting the results that I’m getting, then I don’t think they can leave me at home. That’s inspiration.”

Taking things (too) personally

Our conversation came about because Porte read my blog on Cycling Central and didn’t take too kindly to what I wrote; that Riis was hedging his bets on Contador by essentially sending a Tour de France team to the Giro, and the 26-year-old doesn’t yet have the capacity to finish up high at the Tour de France – or at least as high as Riis would be satisfied.

But with regards to the latter, he’s admitted as much himself – that’s he’s going to the Tour for experience, “to not ride GC and just follow wheels”. Regardless, I tell him you can’t take everything to heart – and like it or not, it’s my job to analyse and critique the world he and I both live in.

“There’s so many guys that are going to criticise you, aren’t there? That’s probably more my problem; you do take it personally. I had some shit written about me on the Cyclingnews forum...”

Oh, don’t go there, man. That’s an evil place!

“Oh, isn’t it!” he says, chortling at the silliness of venturing there in the first place, ill-founded criticism and vitriol being par for the course on Internet forums.

There’s something else Richie objects to: sticky bottles and getting pushed up climbs by the tifosi [fans].

He tells me about the 222-kilometre fifteenth stage from Mestre, on the outskirts of Venice, to the Zoncolan at last year’s Giro. On the precipitous slopes of the final 10km climb where it is not uncommon to see even the best climbers use compact chainsets and gear ratios of 34x28, the entire field including the front group had fractured in ones and twos, with Porte riding around 15-20th position.

“I remember some guy, pushing me... I was like, f**k off!

“I hate it. The Italians get pushed up. It’s not right. You put yourself in [my] situation: you’re max heart-rate, you’re stressed, it hurts, weird shit goes through your mind – and then you see some f**ker in front of you gettin’ pushed! It’s the little things that can crack you.”

I sincerely hope his Saxo Bank team really do look after him. This portentous, likeable, go-getter of a young man, future Grand Tour contender or not, deserves to be treated well.

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