Nicolas Portal's eight Grand Tour victories made him one of the most successful directeurs sportifs in cycling history, but the amiable Frenchman's calm and unassuming demeanour could hardly have been further removed from the more authoritarian style once seemingly de rigueur for the role.
Chris Froome, who was guided by Portal in each of his four Tour de France victories, spoke for many when he described his late confidant as "the kindest, happiest guy I knew". The sentiment has been echoed in many of the tributes that have been paid to Portal by his former charges and teammates in the hours since it was announced that he had died after suffering a heart attack at his home in Andorra on Tuesday. He was 40 years old.
As a collective entity, Team Ineos – previously Team Sky – has never enjoyed a reputation for openness or friendliness, but the smiling Portal was an antidote to the team's buttoned-down corporate image. On good days and bad, Portal was always to be found outside the team bus before and after races, politely fielding media requests in French, English and Spanish.
Indeed, Portal even insisted on conducting his interviews with one British journalist in Spanish – a relic of his time at Caisse d'Epargne – in order to help him keep up his practice of the language and aid his communication with Sky's growing contingent of South American riders.
The team could scarcely have asked for a more eloquent ambassador, and Portal was regularly pressed into something of a diplomatic role at the Tour de France, where he fielded questions from an often-sceptical press room with good grace.
"I understand that you have to face up to questions, but the violence of the headlines shocks me," Portal told French newspaper Libération last year in a revealing portrait by Pierre Carrey. (opens in new tab)
As well as his strategic abilities, Portal proved himself well able to manage the competing ambitions of multiple leaders. At each of the past two Tours de France, he guided two Ineos riders to the podium. He managed Geraint Thomas to victory ahead of the third-placed Froome in 2018, while he was behind the wheel again when the defending champion took second behind Egan Bernal in 2019.
"I recruited Nico for his human qualities," Dave Brailsford said last year. "He respects others and makes himself respected. You can teach technique or tactics, but not human qualities. That's innate."
Or, as Libération recalled: "As a rider, Nicolas Portal used to turn and say, 'Thank you,' every time a spectator encouraged him."
From mountain bikes to the Tour de France
Born in 1979 in Auch in the Gers department in the southwest of France, Portal's first contact with competitive cycling came through mountain biking. After notching up success on the trails as a junior and under-23 rider in the late 1990s, he was encouraged to switch his talents to the road, and Vincent Lavenu signed him as a stagiaire for AG2R at the end of the 2001 season. Despite his relative inexperience in a peloton, Portal impressed both on and off the bike during his trial spell, and he turned professional with the team in 2002.
"I took him on as a stagiaire and I saw immediately that he had some drive, this lad," Lavenu told AFP two years ago. "He had talent, a certain class, and a good temperament as a rider. He was an attacker who certainly didn't have a lot of knowledge of the road, but he had the desire. He always had his mountain biking spirit. He was like that, Nico – relaxed and calm."
Portal adapted quickly to life on the road, and he completed his first Grand Tour when he lined out at the 2002 Vuelta a España. His made his Tour de France debut in the centenary edition of the race the following season. He would reach Paris that year and in each of his five subsequent participations in the colours of AG2R and Spanish squad Caisse d'Epargne.
His lone win as a professional came in 2004, when he soloed to victory in Aubenas on stage 3 of the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré after attacking on the final climb. Portal had also placed third in the previous year's French time trial championships, but his calling as a rider was as a most valued domestique.
In 2006, Eusebio Unzue recruited Portal to ride for Caisse d'Epargne, largely in the service of Alejandro Valverde. It was an echo of how another rider from the southwest of France, the late Dominique Arnaud, had been a trusted lieutenant of both Pedro Delgado and Miguel Indurain at Reynolds and Banesto. Portal's younger brother, Sebastien, also joined the team for a season in 2007 before moving on to Cofidis.
Portal missed much of the 2009 season after he was diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia, but he was given the all-clear to return to racing in October of that year and signed with the nascent Team Sky two weeks later, thanks in part to a recommendation from his former AG2R teammate Simon Gerrans.
The British team's maiden season proved to be Portal's final year in the professional peloton, but he moved directly to the team car after accepting an offer from Dave Brailsford to become a directeur sportif, even if the transition came as a surprise.
"I said to him, 'But Dave, I don't even speak English,'" Portal recalled.
He learned quickly, in all departments. After cutting his teeth as a directeur sportif in his first two seasons, Portal found himself promoted to a leading role ahead of the 2013 season following the departures of Steven de Jongh, Sean Yates, Bobby Julich and Shane Sutton from the Team Sky staff. His rise in the hierarchy coincided with that of Chris Froome, and they formed a close partnership over the following seasons.
Portal was the lead directeur sportif for Froome's maiden Tour victory in 2013 and for each of his subsequent Grand Tour triumphs – the 2015, 2016 and 2017 Tours, as well as the 2017 Vuelta and the 2018 Giro d'Italia. The Frenchman later brought his personal tally of Grand Tour wins to eight when he helped Geraint Thomas to Tour victory in 2018 and Egan Bernal to the yellow jersey 12 months later.
Portal's final races as directeur sportif were last month's Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and Volta ao Algarve, and he was due to be in the lead team car at Paris-Nice next week, guiding the defending champion Bernal at 'The Race to the Sun'. He had envisaged one day working with young riders or in mountain biking when his tenure as a WorldTour directeur sportif came to an end.
Nicolas Portal was born in Auch, France, on April 23, 1979. He died in Andorra on March 3, 2020.
From the entire team, thank you. We are all overwhelmed by the incredible outpouring of well wishes and support.It’s touching to see everyone loved Nico just as much as we did. pic.twitter.com/Yxb0jJqkMqMarch 4, 2020
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