Richie Porte first lined up at the Santos Tour Down Under in 2008, securing a spot in the national team to race at his first top-tier international event. Now fourteen years later he’s taking the journey full circle, racing on the roads of South Australia for possibly the last time in the final season of his career.
The 36-year-old Ineos Grenadiers rider is again with the national squad (Team Garmin Australia) at the Santos Festival of Cycling as he mentors another generation of hopefuls. It isn’t the WorldTour finale to his time at the race he had hoped for with the cancellation of the international event for a second year, but he still plans to make the most of his last time on the vineyard lined roads and particularly the final climb Willunga Hill.
“I want to enjoy it. Adelaide has been very kind to me over the years. It's probably my favourite race on the calendar and it's just great to get here,” Porte said as the racing began.
“It's a shame it's not a WorldTour event, but it's a great opportunity for the young Aussie kids to show what they're made of and test themselves against guys like Rohan Dennis and Luke Durbridge and Plappy [Luke Plapp]. You know, there are some class bike riders here and it's always good to see where the Aussie boys are at.”
Last year Porte, while riding with Team Garmin Australia, helped turn the Ineos Grenadiers spotlight on Plapp, who graciously clapped his mentor and teammate over the line as he rode over the line atop Willunga to take his seventh victory on the race’s iconic climb.
Now Plapp, with an Ineos Grenadiers contract in hand, will share a mentoring role alongside Porte in a team of Under 19 and first year Under 23 riders.
When Porte was in a similar position to his young charges, lining up at the South Australian race with the national squad, then known as Uni SA Australia, he finished ninth overall on GC, which was in fact one spot ahead of current race director Stuart O’Grady.
“This race is really where it all started for me. I made the wildcard selection in 2008 and got the gig here, and I've absolutely loved this race,” said Porte
“Willunga has been a bit of a stomping ground for me.”
Calling Willunga a bit of a stomping ground may be a bit of an understatement from the Tasmanian rider. His winning ways on the climb began in 2014 and he has won at the top in all but one year since. It's no surprise that he is known as the King of Willunga, but now that he is retiring and his reign coming to an end, the only question left is will it be this year or next.
"In some ways it'd be nice to have a bit of a gallop up there, but let's see what happens,” Porte said.
“I mean, we have a young team and it's it's probably on us to try and pull it back together but if it doesn't happen, if it's not all up and the break is going to take the stage, it would also be nice to slip out the back and enjoy it, you know? I’ve never been able to enjoy it before, so that would be a nice feeling as well.”
The road stages of the men's racing in the Santos Festival of Cycling started in Stirling on Thursday, after a criterium in the heart of Adelaide on Wednesday. The National Road Series race with a mix of domestic teams and WorldTour professionals, finishes at the top of Willunga Hill on Saturday.
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