Richie Porte calls 2011, the season he 'had to have'. When then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating used the same sentiments to describe an economic downturn two decades ago, what followed was a period of prosperity. Just like the politician, Porte will be hoping that his year spent in the comparative wilderness, as opposed to his breakout 2010 season, will lead to bigger and better things in his debut for Team Sky.
The man charged with the task of helping the Australian begin to again reach the great heights experienced in his neo-pro season with Saxo Bank-SunGard, is Team Sky's race coach Bobby Julich. The two previously crossed paths in Porte's early days with the Danish squad and it's the American's recollections of that time that give the best indication of where the now 26-year-old has come from, where he is going – and why.
December 2009 - the first training camp: His roommate didn't show up so he was rooming by himself the whole time which is probably pretty intimidating. When you have a teammate who probably has a little bit more experience than you he can remind you that, hey we need to be here at this time or breakfast is at this time, dinner's at that time.
I kind of saw that he was a little bit confused, a little bit shy and instantly just got off on the right foot with him. I enjoyed talking to him - he's a very humble, good kid. Then when we got back to Europe, I just tried to help him as much as I could.
February 2010 - Tour Cycliste International du Haut Var: I saw his files and the numbers he was putting out. It didn't quite jibe with the results of the race. I talked with one of the directors, I think it was Dan Frost and got a little bit of information. I said: 'Dan with these numbers why wasn't he in the front group?' And Dan told me: 'Oh man, he can't ride in the peloton, he's very nervous.'
The numbers that I was looking at, was him at the tail end of the comet when they're streaming down the road and I could see where he was holding on, holding on, but evidently he was never in the front. I said to myself and then to the other directors: 'If we can teach this guy, if he can produce these sort of numbers while protected in the front in the final, we've got something here.'
March 2010 – Paris – Nice, Stage 7: I was in the car the last couple of days following and I just saw this lost puppy dog in the peloton and he was always at the back. The last stage is Nice-Nice and it's a very difficult stage to say the least and his role was to do a little bit of the pace setting and then once we started to climb, just to hang on and he was instantly dropped. He came back to the second car which was obviously far behind. I said: 'Richie, turn around I know this doesn't sound right but just turn around, because from here to the finish you have climb after climb after climb; you're obviously tired, it's time to pull the plug on this.' He kind of looked at me like, really?
When I got back to the bus, Bjarne was talking with Richie a little bit about losing a little bit of weight for power to weight ratio and I said: 'Oh my gosh, that's a really hard conversation to have with a neo pro as he drops out of his first WorldTour race.'
Two weeks later, the pair met for a ride and it was obvious that Porte had taken on board what Riis had said about diet. Some have labelled it as Riis' 'charm offensive', but Julich says that it comes down to the Dane's strength in being able to pinpoint and then communicate a weakness back to a rider without it causing a negative reaction. Little by little with the help of Julich, Porte improved his techniques for descending with his mentor telling Cyclingnews that the Tasmanian was "an incredibly quick learner." Growing in confidence, Porte began to talk up the upcoming individual time trial at the Tour de Romandie.
April 2010 – Tour de Romandie, Stage 3: He wound up winning the time trial in Romandie. Everyone thought that they had messed up the time because he came out of nowhere and just smashed everybody. Bjarne called me up and said: 'Do you think there was some sort of problem with the timing?' I said: 'Well we don't know because he didn't have his SRM on his time trial bike, but I think he's on the right path.'
Nineteen days later, Porte was wearing the Giro d'Italia's maglia rosa for the first day of his three-stage stint. He went home as winner of the young rider classification but perhaps most impressively, Porte was in the general classification top 10 for the entire duration of the race. The result was simply, a revelation.
Hitting the dance floor but missing the beat
Porte's results at the Giro, on top of his other achievements in 2010 including fourth in the individual time trial at the UCI Road World Championships in Geelong, were enough to catch the attention of Team Sky who attempted to lure him out of his contract with Saxo Bank following the Tour of Britain where he finished fourth on GC – it was a deal that just couldn't be done.
Approaching the final year of his Saxo Bank contract in 2011, there was more expectation and undoubtedly more pressure – both internal and external although Porte says none came "directly" from the team.
"Cycling, at the end of the day, is a business," Porte told Cyclingnews. "Of course they wanted me to go and get some results. Having said that, I don't think Saxo Bank is a massive pressure test either. It's a team where there's always other guys stepping up."
Circumstances would dictate that Porte's primary task this season would be to ride in support of Alberto Contador, but not everything was going to plan. Porte had health issues with allergies and then it became a case of what he describes as "trying to re-invent the wheel" when it came to his riding approach.
"All I had to do, really, was maybe improve in a few areas when instead we tried to improve on too much," Porte says in retrospect. "It just got a little bit too much. I got sick, and through no one else's fault but my own, I kept on training and that led to us chasing our tails a bit.
"I guess it was as frustrating for the team as it was for me. Around Romandie and those races I had to put my hand up and tell them exactly how I was, and I didn't."
It was a situation that Julich knew all too well and likened to his own experience in 1999 having finished third overall at the Tour de France the previous season.
"I thought I had it all figured out and I think he thought he had it all figured out as well," Julich admitted. "You really need to have a support team and you need to dance with the girl that brought you, sort of thing and don't move too far away from what you were doing.
"Everyone has seasons like that," Julich continued. "You want to come out and confirm your amazing results with more amazing results; you try to do too much sometimes. He just needs to get back to basics and do what works for him."
Cause, effect and another sort of reward
Unexpectedly, Porte found himself back at the Giro when the plan had been for him to concentrate on the Tour de France. Pockets of the Australian media considered this to be a somewhat controversial move by team management but it's a decision that Porte maintains he had the final say on.
"We knew that it was never going to be me riding for GC but we were just trying to get some good kilometres in the legs and a bit of morale back," Porte explained. "To be honest the last week of the Giro I was coming good." Something that Porte confirmed with a respectable fourth on the final stage time trial in Milan.
In preparation for his debut at the Tour de France, Porte was feeling his best all season having banished his troublesome allergies and spent some time at altitude doing some "mindless climbing." Still, his third Grand Tour was not about personal ambition. He went on to finish fifth in the penultimate stage, the individual time trial where countryman Cadel Evans (BMC) took control of the yellow jersey.
According to Julich, watching from afar, the results that Porte was able to post in the race against the clock was about some of the weight of expectation being lifted and a chance of redemption, a rare moment in a team sport that could be about self – something he had drilled into Porte over a year earlier.
"It was almost a comforting role for him because he did not have that pressure because he wasn't ready but then that competitive spirit that Richie has, that was kind of stifled and the only time he could let that out was in the time trials," Julich said.
Persistence eventually paid off for Porte at the Tour of Denmark in August where he claimed his lone win of the season and unsurprisingly, it was in the individual time trial where he bettered Saxo Bank – SunGard teammate Gustav Larsson and Sky's Alex Dowsett by 10 and 17 seconds respectively.
Eventually standing on the top of the podium aside, the Tasmanian took away more from his year of toil than would first appear.
"I may not have had great personal achievements but I learnt a hell of a lot off Alberto and also Bjarne," Porte admits. "I rode two Grand Tours with them and maybe that's the best lesson I could have had."
Welcome to the saving grace
Porte explained that it came as a surprise to him that Sky were still interested in his services following the trials and tribulations of 2011.
"They'd actually done a lot of research into me which, I guess is nice," he said. "They're the one team that identified that I took some big steps last year and I think that the first two years of being a professional are a learning curve whereas I didn't really have to do so much learning. I'd go to races for the first time and the next thing, I'd be the protected rider."
Julich concedes that aside from working with his natural ability, the next steps for Porte are about more than his development as a rider.
"I've known him for two years since he's come into the professional world so I think he trusts me, I hope I earn his trust and I hope that we, the Team can help him get back to where he should be," Julich said.
"Regardless of his results this year, I want him to learn to take responsibility for his profession, for himself. We're there to help him but the most important thing is that personal growth because once that happens, things fall into line. If you have something one year and you don't have it the next, then you've kind of lost. But if you've had the basic skills, that basic organisation, those core values that make you who you are, you take that with you to every scenario."
Porte is relishing the opportunity to be a part of the Team Sky line up, a destination key to his continuing development in the professional peloton and stacked with GC options with Brad Wiggins, Chris Froome at their disposal for the three-week epics. With the Australian's race program yet to be decided where he will fit within the pecking order is still unclear although Porte told Cyclingnews he would like to target GC in the smaller stage races, but most importantly be consistent throughout all elements of his racing.
"He's definitely a talent, he's a young talent - we like that on our team," said Julich. "We obviously have some riders that have the proven GC credentials, a little bit higher than him but he's going to be a very important part of our team and now it's up to us to make him feel comfortable there."
Having just returned from his first training camp in Milan with his new teammates, something Porte describes as "no stress", the 26-year-old is refreshed and ready to begin pre-season training as the weather begins to cool around Monaco where he calls home. His immediate race goals however, are the Australian National Road Championships in January where he'll take on both the road race and time trial.
"It's an important step to be brought back down to earth like I have been this year," Porte explained, both at peace with the road ahead and behind him. "I've enjoyed my two years at Saxo Bank and now it's time to move onto new things. That's inspiration enough to come out next year and again, it's another learning curve for me."