Richie Porte had a difficult 2014, with illness affecting every race he targeted during his European season. He was eventually diagnosed with mild pneumonia in August and forced to let his body recover but his season was a write-off. 2015 has been totally different. The Tasmanian has won nine races, including Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya, and topped the UCI WorldTour rankings until Alejandro Valverde won Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At the end of April he dominated the Giro del Trentino, confirming he is a favourite for the Giro d'Italia.
Porte was guaranteed leader status when he negotiated his latest contract at Team Sky. He was forced to miss the Giro last year but this season he has been confirmed as captain and his results so far have a set a trajectory that could put him on any of the steps of the final podium in Milan on May 31. He could become the first Australian to win the Giro d'Italia and so take Cadel Evans' place as the best Australian Grand Tour rider in the peloton.
After a late start to his cycling career following years as a swimmer and triathlete, Porte has been a professional since joining Saxo Bank in 2010. He turned 30 in January but admits he has turned an important corner in his career after his problems of 2014. He was diagnosed with pneumonia but also realised he had to make some serious life style changes if he wanted to be a true Grand Tour contender. He recently revealed he has lost close to five kilogrammes after cutting back on his alcohol consumption and changing his diet. It seems that getting engaged also helped him find a far better life balance.
"Last season was tough in lots of ways but it was a blessing in disguise," Porte tells Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview before the Giro d'Italia.
"The specific thing for me was when I went to Manchester for tests (in August) from four different doctors to try to find out what was wrong with me. One of our team doctors said to me at the time: 'There’s obviously something not right with your health but you’re not living the lifestyle of a professional bike rider.' For me that was a big kick up the backside and the one I needed the most.
"My problems meant that I finished my season early, went back to Tasmania, got healthy and started training early for 2015. My fiancée was still in the UK and so I was living with my mum and dad and just training hard every day. Now I think I'm back on track. The work I put in during the off-season was exactly what I needed and I enjoyed doing it. I think I've really turned the corner in my career and this Giro d'Italia is a big opportunity and I'm really looking forward to it."
Racing in Italy
Most international riders prefer to target the Tour de France but Porte has strong ties to Italy and the Giro d'Italia seems a naturally stepping-stone to greater success.
He raced as an amateur in Tuscany for three seasons, winning the time trial stage at the Giro Bio and finishing fifteenth overall in 2009, enough to secure him a place in Bjarne Riis' Saxo Bank team for 2010 after some late negotiations during the World Championships. Thanks to being in a key breakaway that gained 12 minutes on the peloton during a tough day to L'Aquila, Porte even got to wear the race leader's pink jersey for three days in his debut Giro in 2010. He eventually finished seventh overall behind winner Ivan Basso.
"I kind of served my cycling apprenticeship in Italy. I came over in 2007 and rode as an amateur in Tuscany before turning pro with Bjarne," Porte recalls.
"I haven't done a lot of racing in Italy as a professional since then but I love going back and racing there. I watched the Giro in Italy during my amateur days. Three days in the pink jersey back then meant so much to me. I got pretty sick when I had it but it's still one of those memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life."
Porte went on to win two races in 2011 and rode the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, doing enough to land a place at Team Sky. If his career is marked by important corners, joining the British team and his close friendship with Chris Froome was an important turn for the better.
"My best career choice was moving to Team Sky. I'll always thank Bjarne Riis for taking me on and giving me a chance. I owe the guy a lot but certainly my career took off at Team Sky," Porte says.
"Then when I signed my last contract, Dave Brailsford agreed that I'd get to lead my own team in a Grand Tour. It didn't work out last year but I'm much more mature than I've been and I'm really looking forward to fighting for the pink jersey this year."
Racing with a smile rather a scowl
Fellow Australia Tim Kerrison, Team Sky's Head of Athlete Performance, also played a major role in Porte's maturity. So has his fiancée, giving him a more natural balance between cycling and his life. Porte has always raced with a smile rather than a scowl, but he seems genuinely happy and focused at the moment.
"I've learnt things from Chris Froome, Brad Wiggins and Michael Rogers, I've picked up little pieces, but Tim Kerrison is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my career," Porte says full of praise.
"Being in a relationship also changes your life, for sure. It helps you settle down. And when we go to the training camps and you miss your fiancée, you make the most of the training time. It's nice to have friends outside of cycling too and have more of a life balance than just living and breathing cycling. I don't think it's that healthy to spend lots of time looking at the internet and Twitter to read about cycling."
Team Sky has always rallied against what team manager Dave Brailsford once called pseudo-science, when people try to calculate and then comment on rider performance. Porte is not a fan either, hence why he largely avoids the internet when focused on his racing and training.
"Everyone has their opinions but at the end of day, what a person says about you on Twitter doesn't really matter," he says, responding to his critics and those who may doubt his performances of the past and those he may produce at the Giro d'Italia.
He calls on people to believe in him.
"Some people sit there and watch cycling on television with a stopwatch. They do all these calculations but it's so far from the truth. At the end of the day, I'm the one at the training camps flogging the hell out of myself up at altitude. It's hard work and nothing else. It's got to be the time that people believe in us and trust us."
A strong team
Porte stayed on Italy after winning the Giro del Trentino to study the key mountain stages and climbs. A quick visit to study the dirt roads of the Colle delle Finestre is also planned before he lines up in San Remo for the opening team time trial on Saturday.
Team Sky has selected a solid team to back Porte at the Giro d'Italia, with Bernhard Eisel, Sebastián Henao, Vasil Kiryienka, Leopold König, Mikel Nieve, Kanstantsin Siutsou, Salvatore Puccio and sprinter Elia Viviani named in the nine-rider team. König and Henao could both perhaps step up and fight for a top-ten place overall if Porte falters.
There are no British rider at this year's Giro d'Italia and few North American riders. Cadel Evans may have retired but Porte leads a strong Australian contingent that also includes Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge), Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling).
Porte will have plenty of riders to swap Aussie banter with before and during the stages and possibly some strong alliances to call on if Team Sky needs support to defend the pink jersey.
"I think it's going to be a great Giro for the Australians," Porte predicts. "Cadel left some big shoes to fill but that's my goal. We've taken different paths so far in our careers but I'd love to go on and win all the different races he did. I've a lot of respect for Cadel."
Porte is one of five overall favourites for the Giro d'Italia alongside Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Fabio Aru (Astana), Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quickstep) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale). He has racked up more days of racing (33) than all his rivals so far this season and has won the most races too (nine). However Alberto Contador is the only one of the big five to have previously won a Grand Tour, with six on his palmarès.
Porte is happy to load the Spaniard and his Tinkoff-Saxo team with all the pre-race pressure and responsibility.
"Alberto is probably the rider with the most pressure on him," he suggests. "Uran has been second twice, which is an advantage for him, and he also knows how to fight, so he might be the hungriest guy there too. Aru is emerging as a Grand Tour contender and is a talent, while Pozzovivo can never be ignored, even if his form was a little erratic at the Giro del Trentino."
"I've had a fantastic start to season. The one thing about winning is that it's increased my appetite to keep on winning. You have a limited time to be a professional but I think I'm coming into my heyday now and I'm certainly going to make the most of it. Winning the Giro would be a dream come true. We'll see what happens. But I'm confident in everything that I've done building up to it."
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