At this late point on the calendar, a professional rider may find himself in another part of the world and he may ask himself, well, how did I get here? The question might have been pondered by many in the Tour of Guangxi peloton on Wednesday, as the heavens opened across the Beibu Gulf and thick sheets of rain reduced visibility to a minimum.
Richie Porte was in China to ride his final race in the colours of BMC Racing Team before switching to Trek-Segafredo in 2019, but there comes a point, perhaps, when professional obligations are overwritten by pragmatism.
The illness that ruled Porte out of the World Championships effectively ended his 2018 season as a sporting endeavour, while a crash before the pavé of the stage to Roubaix had already seen his Tour de France challenge come to a premature halt in July.
During stage 2 of the Tour of Guangxi, Porte reached a point where it must have felt his season had gone on long enough and he abandoned the race.
"After the disappointment of not being able to ride the Worlds I’ve kind of shut it down and China was a late addition to the programme," Porte had told Cyclingnews before the start of stage 2 in Beihai. "Looking back on my three years at BMC, I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a fantastic team. So to finish up in China, it’s the end of the chapter, I suppose."
Porte’s three-year spell at BMC Racing has seen him buttress his standing as a one-week stage race rider, but the period has also been punctuated by a spate of ill fortune in July at the Tour de France. A crash on stage 9 has forced him to abandon each of the past two editions, while his fifth place finish in 2016 was tinged with regret, given that time lost in a stage 2 puncture handicapped his podium challenge from the outset.
"Obviously, that was why I came to the team, to perform in July, but for one reason or another it’s not happened. 2016 I was unlucky there, though that seems like a lifetime ago now, then the last two years I’ve obviously ended up at home after stage 9," Porte said.
"To win Romandie, Down Under, Suisse, they’re nice races to win. The week-long stage races have been good to me but obviously it would have been nice to have done well in July."
There has been a grim symmetry to Porte’s most recent Tour de France appearances, though there was, he says, no comparison between the trauma of each incident.
In 2017, Porte’s crash on the descent of the Mont du Chat left him with a broken hip and collarbone, and could conceivably have caused far more lasting damage. The fractured clavicle on the road to Roubaix this past summer was, in the grand scheme of things, a mere sporting setback.
"The crash last year, I’m not going to lie, it shook me up a lot. People are quick to sit back and criticise you about things, but when I think back it was a pretty horrific injury that I had out of it. I’m just happy to be riding my bike," Porte said.
"This year was just disappointing. It was one of those things, in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the Tour de Suisse we had the same bunch of riders there, we had fun so I’m sure the Tour would have been good."
Window of opportunity
Now 33 years of age, Porte is keenly aware that his window of opportunity to fulfil his potential in a Grand Tour is not an unlimited one, though his late elevation to the role of team leader in July means that he may have margin for improvement in the discipline yet.
Simply getting a clear run to Paris would be a start.
"I still enjoy riding my bike, I still enjoy the training and doing the hard miles. I’m not going to lie, when you look in the mirror in the morning and there’s more and more grey hair, you think about it," Porte said.
"But look, Cadel [Evans] won the Tour at 34. Nothing’s impossible."
And though Porte stressed that the Tour is not his sole raison d’être at Trek-Segafredo – “It’s not all about July and performing; it’s about winning races” – those three weeks in July will again be the centrepiece of his season in 2019. The track record and age profile of the defending champion, meanwhile, are of some solace.
“I look at not just Cadel, but at two of my good friends, Geraint Thomas and Rohan Dennis, who’ve always had bad luck one way or another, and then both went and won the Tour and World Champs TT, respectively," Porte said.
"There’s no point in losing sleep now that it’s happened. I hope next year is the one year I can finally nail."
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