This story appeared in the latest issue of Procycling magazine. To subscribe, click here.
After a successful campaign in 2013, Australia’s Richie Porte started 2014 eager to impress as one of Sky’s lead riders. But as he tells Procycling, this year turned out to be a season littered with pitfalls…
Tour Down Under, stage 5 - January 25
Porte’s 2014 season could not have had a better kick start than the Tour Down Under. He came away with victory on the queen stage at the summit of Willunga Hill after distancing Australian veteran Cadel Evans and Simon Gerrans. Ultimately, he finished fourth, with top honours going to Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).
“I had a really good Tour Down Under. Winning on Old Willunga Hill is always a great feeling for an Australian because it’s so iconic and the crowd is really behind you. So, in that sense, the start of the season was promising and even when I went back to Europe to pick things up there I was on the front foot. I had a win under my belt and my confidence was on the up, too.”
Tirreno-Adriatico, stage 4 - March 15
Porte carried his early season form back to Europe with second overall at the Ruta del Sol. His next race, Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico (the ‘Race Of The Two Seas’), was supposed to be a crucial step towards his Giro d’Italia challenge and saw him start as Team Sky’s leader when Chris Froome was forced out through injury. Everything seemed to be on course when Porte traded blows with Alberto Contador on a long mountain climb to the finish line at Selvarotonda ski resort but that evening, disaster struck.
A severe case of gastro flu saw the Sky rider forced to abandon the race. The team’s doctors predicted a speedy recovery but as it turned out, from that moment onwards, Porte’s season was on the back foot.
“This was when my season started to go pear shaped. I was with the top guys on the first key mountain stage and exactly where I needed to be in terms of that race and my preparation for Giro d’Italia. I remember climbing off my bike after stage 4 with my mind already focused on the following day, the queen stage.
“But then, that night I was struck down. That was the biggest and most devastating blow to the first part of my season. At that point I still thought that I was going to be able to pull everything together in time for the Giro d’Italia.”
Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, DNF - March 24 to 30
After some much needed time off the bike, Porte was back in the saddle for the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya in Spain. This race was almost certainly going to be the Australian’s last chance to prove his form ahead of the Giro d’Italia. If he succeeded, he would be back on track for a tilt at the maglia rosa but if he failed, the first half of his season would pretty much be a write-off.
Unluckily, after just the second stage, Sky were forced to post on Twitter: “Grim conditions today at #VoltaCatalunya. Sadly @richie_porte has withdrawn from the race”.
“I was back on the bike and I thought that I was back in the groove. I felt like I was over the gastro flu and although my confidence had taken a bit of a knock, I’d trained hard and I felt like my strength was coming back.
“Yet I underestimated the effects of the virus and as soon as I was back on my bike and in a race scenario I realised that I had nothing left in the tank. I was empty at the start of stages and then I started going on this roll of DNFs.”
Giro d’Italia, DNS - May 9 to June 1
With another heavy body blow inflicted in Spain and further disappointment at the Tour de Romandie, Porte was left with little choice other than to scrap his Giro d’Italia dreams and focus on the second half of the year. It was a crushing moment in his and Team Sky’s season.
“The decision to pull out of the Giro was all mine. Of course, I spoke with the team and especially Tim Kerrison but the team reminded me that when they signed me, it was with the understanding that I would get my chance to ride a Grand Tour for myself. So it was entirely my call whether to race or to hold off.
“I made the correct call. It was a bitterly disappointing knock to take given that I had put so much mental and physical effort into targetting the race – and there were already people questioning me – but I remember going out for just a short ride and I could barely get up a small hill. If I’d gone to the Giro, it would have destroyed me.”
Critérium du Dauphiné - June 8 to 15
Porte spent May away from the spotlight as he focused on Team Sky’s key objective of the season – defending Chris Froome’s Tour de France title. Porte had been one of the essential elements in the British rider’s 2013 title-winning ride and at the Dauphiné – the last warm-up race before the Tour – the pair were back together.
The race kicked off with two crucial stages: an individual time trial through Lyon, followed by a mountaintop finish on the Col du Béal. Froome may have claimed both stages and an early lead in the race but Porte was floundering once again, finishing back in 23rd position on the time trial then going on to lose 10 minutes during stage 2 the next day.
“All the focus was now on the Tour de France and supporting Chris as best we could but when I arrived at the Dauphiné, I was uncertain about my form. It became clear where we stood when I lost nearly 10 minutes on the first mountain stage. I honestly didn’t see that coming.”
It looked as though Porte’s chances of even riding the Tour were under threat but he was able to bounce back as the race wore on, once again becoming Froome’s last man in the mountain stages.
“By the time we got through to the final weekend, although Chris crashed and lost the race, I was seeing signs of improvement with my own form. I knew I wasn’t going to arrive at the Tour de France in stellar form but I was sure that I could reach that point after a week of racing.”
Tour de France - July 5 to 27
Porte started the 2014 Tour with two roles – as Froome’s wing man and as Team Sky’s Plan B should disaster strike the defending champion. Sure enough, the Australian found himself in that secondary role after Froome was injured in the opening week.
“After Chris crashed out, I was thrust into the role of team leader. Those were some big shoes to fill but after the first rest day, I was inside the top five overall.”
Porte’s race was to turn on its head on stage 13 to Chamrousse. He was already in difficulty during the penultimate climb, and then he succumbed to the brutal heat to drop out of the top 10 altogether.
“Although that stage looked good for me on paper, I had been on antibiotics ever since the cobbled stage. Getting sick was a recurring part of this season and it struck again on the stage to Chamrousse. When I was out the back on the penultimate climb, I knew I was going to lose some time but I didn’t think I’d take such a kicking. If this had been any other race, I’d have pulled the pin then and there. But it was the Tour, so of course I wanted to make it to Paris.”
He did just that but, with an overall 23rd placing, and the second half of Porte’s season proved no less painful than the first.
What doesn’t kill Porte will only make him stronger.
Two further DNFs followed in August before Porte was pulled from the Tour of Britain and the two Canadian WorldTour races, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec and Montréal. Concerned with his health, Sky sent him for tests.
“I knew that things weren’t right,” admits Porte, “and that I was still suffering from the effects of the Tour. I was down to do the Tour of Britain but was pulled from that and the same thing happened ahead of Canada. Dave Brailsford called me and sent me over to Manchester to have a number of tests with different doctors. Every one of them told me to stop racing and I was diagnosed with pneumonia.”
Forced to hang up his wheels, Porte has been able to focus on regaining his health during the off-season. He has stepped up his training moderately under the keen eye of Team Sky’s medical staff. He’s starting to look ahead to a far more productive 2015 and is happy to put the horrors of this year behind him.
“You have good seasons and you have bad seasons. When things go against you, they can quickly ramp up. The hardest point this year was when I slipped out of GC at the Tour but I’ve used knocks like that to focus on 2015. I’ve learnt a lot about myself after what I’ve been through. Next year is about putting that into practice.”
This appeared in the latest issue of Procycling magazine. To subscribe, click here.