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Richie Porte: One last performance as a Tour de France leader

Trek-Segafredo’s Richie Porte descends during stage 5 of the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné
Trek-Segafredo’s Richie Porte descends during stage 5 of the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné – his last race before a final tilt as a GC leader at the Tour de France (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Just nine more stages. That's all that remains of Richie Porte's career as a Grand Tour leader before the Australian, who is set to leave Trek-Segafredo at the end of the year, switches to a team where he will resample the delights of a super domestique.

In the 11 years since the 35-year-old turned professional, the rider from Launceston, in Tasmania, has played many characters upon the WorldTour stage: from plucky up-and-comer to the faithful cameo of the right-hand man. He's even bridged out from his comfort zone and taken leading roles, but as the spotlight shifts to a new wave of performers Porte has one final chance to draw out one more show as a GC leader before the curtain comes down on this phase of his career.

On Monday's first rest day at the Tour de France, with the Trek-Segafredo rider neatly nestled in 11th place on GC, he confirmed both his upcoming departure from Trek and a change in roles for what will most likely be the final two years of his career. Both pieces of news were hardly surprising given the levels of noise ahead of his nailed-on move to Ineos, but both his return to a team where he arguably had his best years, and his decision to step back into domestique duties, are inextricably linked.

"Obviously I won't be at Trek-Segafredo next year," he told a cosy but attentive gathering of the press. "I think that's pretty well known. I've signed elsewhere, but we have to wait because nothing has been officially released."

And when asked if this year's Tour would be his final shot at Tour leadership, Porte barely paused before replying, "One hundred per cent."

If this is, as he says, his final hurrah as a GC rider over three weeks, then what should we expect from an athlete who was once the best-pound-for-pound week-long racer on the planet, and who was once seen by many a the rider who would finally end Chris Froome's domination at the Tour de France?

In truth, it's hard to say. Porte's gloss has worn off slightly over the last few years. Crashes and the illnesses that deprived him of a full season in 2019 have taken their toll, but at the same, he hasn't always had the credit his career deserved.

Turning professional relatively late, Porte burst onto the scene as a stage racer just a few months after turning professional with Bjarne Riis' Saxo Bank in 2010. The Dane had been tipped off about the former triathlete's talent by fellow 1990s pedal pusher Andrea Tafi. Porte had enjoyed a successful spell in Italy in the spring and summer of 2009, and had won a stage of the Giro della Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia ahead of Egor Silin and Peter Sagan, no less. He backed that up with an impressive victory in the time trial at the Baby Giro a month later, and then another victory in the one-day GP Citta.

A move to the WorldTour beckoned, but the first few months in Europe were a steep learning curve, with a string of DNFs before Porte produced a timely reminder of his ability against the clock with a stage win at the Tour de Romandie. Thrust into the Giro d'Italia, he rode into the maglia rosa for three days before eventually settling for seventh in Verona and the white jersey to boot.

"At that point of him joining the team, I don't think you could say he was a potential GC guy, but you could clearly see that he had some kind of talent," Riis tells Cyclingnews.

"I think what changed him the most was his weight. When he was at the beginning with my team, he was maybe several kilos over what he is today."

From development to domination

The following year, Porte helped Alberto Contador to a Giro d'Italia victory that CAS later nullified before Dave Brailsford, Team Sky and a pot of money came calling and picked him up for the 2012 campaign. What came next were arguably Porte's best years. He showed promise as a week-long specialist in his first year on the British team before helping Bradley Wiggins take Britain's first Tour de France win.

He then became the first Australian to win Paris-Nice a year later, and followed that with second behind Froome at the Critérium du Dauphiné and then took a leading role in Froome's first Tour title a month later. During that race, on stages to Ax 3 Domaines, Mont Ventoux, and especially Alpe d'Huez, he played pivotal roles. Another Paris-Nice crown followed in 2015 in a spring that also included titles in Catalunya and Trentino, but a failed GC bid at the Giro followed before helping Froome to another Tour win.

The Giro result, however, rammed home the news that if Porte wanted to ever have his own chance at leading a team into the Tour, he needed to move. At that time, BMC Racing were still looking for a rider to replace Cadel Evans. The American hope Tejay van Garderen was talented, but too inconsistent, while Porte came with both the hunger to lead over three weeks and BMC's most prized quality in a rider – the ability to hunt WorldTour points in every stage race possible.

However, Porte's tenure at BMC Racing never quite lived up to expectations. He was always consistently good at the Tour Down Under, and still is, and while his week-long palmarès yielded more wins, including the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de Romandie, he only finished one of his three Tours – his first, in fact – on the team.

His fifth place in Paris in 2016 was, and still is, his best result over three weeks, but it was still tainted by an element of what might have been after a tactical blunder from within the team car saw him left by the roadside on stage 2 to Cherbourg. He would lose close to two minutes that day, and then arrive in Paris just 1:12 off Romain Bardet's second place after a string of highly impressive rides in the mountains.

His last two Tour rides for BMC ended in tragic crashes – both coming on stage 9 in each edition – and from that point on, his Grand Tour career began to fade in the eyes of the media and the public.

"We were all impressed in the role that he had with Froome, as a helper at Sky," says Allan Peiper, who worked with Porte during his BMC years.

"He hit out by himself to have his own chances of riding GC, and a couple of times at BMC I think he had it in him to ride onto the podium at the Tour, for sure, but crashes took him out both times, and that was unfortunate – especially the second time, when he could have gone close to winning."

Peiper makes a valid point. In both 2017 and 2018, Porte was red-hot coming into the Tour, putting over a minute into riders likes Nairo Quintana and Jakob Fuglsang at the Tour de Suisse in 2018 and only losing the Dauphiné a year earlier because Froome rode against him.

"But that's just the way cycling goes," Peiper says of those crashes, "so as an individual, I don't think that he's reached his full potential, but as a helper he was one of the greats. Some of the things that he did with Chris will be remembered for years."

Whether Porte's results as a leader over three weeks were down to bad luck, that missing one per cent of talent, or a combination of all the little things that separate the excellent from the true greats, is probably a debate for when he finally hangs up his wheels, but Peiper certainly believes that the bad luck encountered in 2017 and 2018 robbed Porte of at least the chance to compete for the results he could have achieved.

"You know, two years ago he won the Tour de Suisse and he was primed for the Tour. He does have the three weeks in him; I don't think that's the question. I just think it was about putting those pieces together. I do think that crashes have made a difference to him. They did in the BMC days anyway, because the one where he broke his hip in 2017 was a game-changer, and probably left a bit of a mental block.

"Then a year later, he crashed again on the Roubaix stage. That was an unfortunate set of circumstances but a lot of bike riders have that happen to them."

Asked if that horrific crash in 2017 on stage 9 to Chambéry was the beginning of the end of Porte's true GC contender days, Peiper agrees.

"Yes, I do," he says, almost reluctantly. "He was still good after that, and won the Tour Down Under and the Tour de Suisse, but that was a game-changer. He was really, really ready. I remember we were at altitude camp in Sestrière, and we did a recon of one of the Tour stages, and I remember following him up the Galibier, when it was the end of a six-hour ride, and in the last five kilometres he was riding up in the middle of the cassette, on the small ring, but doing 30kph.

"I couldn't believe how fast he was going. It was insane, at the end of such a long ride, at the end of the camp. He was so primed for the Tour that year, but the crash was a huge blow mentally and physically," Peiper says.

Riis agrees that luck played a part in Porte's three-week prospects, but adds that the Australian has enjoyed a successful career nonetheless.

"When he was at Sky, he was riding for others, but he's had a nice career," the Dane says.

"It's hard to say if he got the best out of it, and he wasn't on my team for most of those years, but he definitely had a lot of bad luck. Maybe some years, if you're a guy for the Tour, then you shouldn't be close to 100 per cent at the Tour Down Under, but I don't know what else you could change."

There was plenty of support for Richie Porte on Willunga Hill for the final stage of the 2020 Tour Down Under

There was plenty of support for Richie Porte on Willunga Hill for the final stage of the 2020 Tour Down Under (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

As for the man himself, there's no time or space to reminisce over the achievements or what might have been. Porte himself will have plenty of time to do that during the off-season as he prepares for his return to pastures old. However, Porte did offer up an explanation as to why he wanted to change roles for the coming years. For the veteran rider, it comes down to pressure, expectancy, and the pursuit of happiness.

"I think that the thing with me is that I'm 35, and things change when you have kids," he said during the rest day press conference. "At the time of dealing with contracts, I had a two-year-old son and a baby on the way. I just feel like I want to do a couple more years and finish in a role where I can go back to what I did in the Froome and Wiggins days. That was a bit less stress on me personally, and that was the deciding factor. I didn't have to go for the biggest contract financially; it was just about trying to be happy in the last two years. That was my biggest goal."

So this is it: the final performance of Richie Porte as a Grand Tour leader. It's far too early to predict what will happen over the coming days as the race reaches its most important chapters. Porte and his co-leader at Trek-Segafredo, Bauke Mollema, have already endured what they hope was their bad day after conceding over a minute in the crosswinds on stage 7, and they both looked sharp enough on the climbs that peppered the first half of the race.

Wherever Porte finishes in Paris, and however his race pans out, few would argue that the Australian probably deserves a bit of luck this time around. And when he does finally have the chance to look back on his career as a leader, he can appreciate the fact that at least he rolled the dice and tried to aim as high as possible.