Opening doors comes naturally for Porte

His surname closely resembles the Italian word for 'door' and doors have been opening for Australian rider Richie Porte since his introduction to the sport just three years ago.

This is reflected in the 24-year-old Australian's own words. Speaking of his first racing experience in Italy, Porte says, "Winning my first race opened a lot of doors - it wasn't the biggest race but it opened a lot of doors and got me onto a better team for the following year."

That first victory came in the Trofeo Sportivi San Donato in Fronzano; while most young riders entering their first stint of racing in a new culture would be pleased to finish, Porte's die was cast with success so early in his Italian experience.

A native of Launceston, Tasmania, Porte is undoubtedly one of Australia's most talented young riders, taking up the sport at the 'older' age of 21 after beginning serious triathlon competition at 18. His is a late but swift introduction to the world of cycling.

He hasn't progressed through the increasingly-common route of a national institute, taking instead the more traditional approach of heading to Europe as an amateur in search of a professional contract.

For the past three seasons, Porte has spent a portion of his season racing in Italy with amateur teams in the cauldron of competition in one of the world's cycling-mad countries. It's been all in the pursuit of a dream; gaining a professional contract.

And in an era when national teams such as that offered by the Australian Institute of Sport are the breeding grounds for future talent, Porte's path has taken him in a direction more closely resembling that of countrymen Allan Peiper and Phil Anderson in the 1980s.

While France or Belgium were - and still remain - the countries of choice for Australians looking to make their mark on cycling in Europe, the culture shock of an Antipodean lad landing in a foreign nation remained, as Porte explains.

"I came over [to Italy] in 2007 and just did three months. I won my first race but it was a hard year," he says. "I only did three months but it was a big culture shock... I was 22."

Despite striking success early in Italy, Porte explains that the nurturing environment of a national institute was missing in a significant way, the pressure cooker environment taking its toll on the 22-year-old. "I head cracked big time... it's the sort of system that just chews guys up and spits them out. It's sink or swim," he says.

"I came home after that first three months just ready to quit; then I worked with a guy named Andrew Christie-Johnson, who has the Praties team in Tassie and had a really good off-season with him. We did everything right - I had a good Australian summer (2007/08), winning the Tour of Bright then taking the wildcard entry for the Tour Down Under."

Porte returned in April 2008 for his second crack at the European scene; he completed another three-month stint, this time just taking the one win - the G.P. Comune di Cerreto Guidi Cerreto Guidi - although he came back to Australia in a much better mental state and picked up victories in the Tours of Perth, Tasmania and Wellington before taking a top five overall at the Herald Sun Tour.

While many of Australia's cycling exports have excelled on the track and transferred those traits to the road, Porte's strength lies in his climbing ability. His numbers after testing in the Mapei laboratory tell the story: a Vo2 max of 81 and a power to weight ratio of 7.6 watts per kilogram.

When you consider that any figure over seven percent is exceptional and perfect for a climber, Porte seems to be a natural. He modestly qualifies this figure by explaining, "It sounds really high but it's one of those 'max' tests - only Mapei does it, I think."

The figures don't usually lie however, and this season Porte has the numbers to prove it - numbers of victories, that is. The 2009 season has clearly been his best to date, which included selection in the 'long' squad for Australia's team at the road world championships in Mendrisio, Switzerland.

Wins in both one-day and stage races have flowed for the Tasmanian in 2009, including stage two of the Giro del Friuli Venezia Giulia, the fourth stage of the Baby Giro - where Australian professionals Matt Lloyd and Scott Davis cut their teeth - and the first stage of the Giro delle Valli Cuneesi nelle Alpi del Mare.

He also prevailed in the GP Città di Felino and the GP Citta di Saltino-Vallombrosa, events where dominant local squads such as G.S. Zalf Desiree Fior are stacked with talent and can control a peloton. It's a daunting place for a young Australian simultaneously learning the language of the country and the culture of the racing.

Porte has also had to battle other cultural aspects. Whilst not appearing the most muscular of riders, he had to deal with gentle but consistent ribbing about body image during his 2008 racing stint with Mastromarco. Despite possessing a lower body fat percentage than his teammates at the time, sometimes it's all about 'the look'.

Again, the numbers don't lie and Porte's results put an end to the teasing. "I don't look ripped or anything like that, but the guys in my team are like stringbeans... [after testing] it turns out I was leaner than any of them - they couldn't believe it! They used to give me s*** all the time," says Porte with a laugh.

He explains that in 2009, riding for former Italian professional Andrea Tafi's Bedogni-Grassi-Natalini-Gr.Praga outfit has been much better, although Tafi's faith in the Australian - whilst a being huge compliment to a young rider - has ruffled a few feathers.

"From the get go he had that much belief in me; it causes problems when we go to races because he's one-eyed. He'll say, 'We work for Richie'. It does cause problems in the team but he has a lot of faith in me, and I think with some of the results I've got for him and the team this year, I've repaid it," says Porte.

Another well-respected member of the cycling fraternity has put his faith in Porte. Coutryman and Cervelo Test Team rider Brett Lancaster has spent a considerable part of his professional team riding with Italians and lives there. The man who has often been mentioned by Alessandro Petacchi as one of the world's best sprint train riders has helped Porte settle into Italy since meeting him at a bike shop

"I met Brett at a bike shop - it all went from there. The guy who owns the bike shop is Brett's best mate in Italy, really. He ran out the door shouting, 'There's a guy from Tasmaaania here," recalls Porte. "Next day I was out riding with him.

"He has helped me that much... He's taken me in. I go and eat dinner with him and his family quite often, I go out training with him pretty much every day when he's here," explains Porte. "He's the best guy, really. Without him, I'd be at home working nine-to-five. He's had that much input - him and his wife, Ally. They're probably the best people I've met."

Porte's natural attributes and work ethic - instilled by a triathlon coach back in Tasmania named Mark Matthews, who Porte describes as "one of the hardest bastards" he's ever met - bode well for a professional career.

The devil is in the detail however, and over the past few weeks the 24-year-old has been analysing options for next season. Whilst not wanting to give too much away, Porte assures me that he's confident I'm talking to Australia's newest professional cyclist.

Doing it the hard way...

Nowadays many of the world's most talented young road riders make their way through national institutes, so the 'old-fashioned' way of making an impact through racing with an amateur team can throw up some interesting situations.

Porte recalls such an instance during the 2008 season: "When I turned up in Italy last year I was meant to go and ride with [Andrea] Tafi's team but there were a few registration issues. I sort of did the whole 'wait at the airport for three hours' thing and nobody showed up," he explains.

"Then Gruppo Lupi, my team from the year before - which is a good team, with good people - eventually turned up to pick me up and then I was living in a house full of Russians; I didn't speak much Italian... and I was sleeping under a staircase."

This sort of scenario harks back to the days of Allan Peiper and Phil Anderson, when 'no-nonsense' conditions made for tough riders. No wonder Porte says he found the going a little difficult at times!

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