Australian Richie Porte's early season form that led him to win a second Paris-Nice title last Sunday has been helped by a return to his roots as a swimmer. The 30-year-old Team Sky rider has revealed that after recovering from health issues that marred his 2014 season, the foundation of his condition this year was laid as much in the local pool near his home town of Hadspen, outside of Launceston in northern Tasmania as on the nearby hilly rural roads he knows so well.
Porte, a competitive swimmer before he took to triathlon in 2003 and then cycling in 2006, believes his return to the pool in which he swam between 20-27km in a week during the off-season of November and December as well as the kilometres he rode on the bike, has boosted his breathing capacity.
Asked for the biggest impact on his cycling from the added strength gained by swimming so much, Porte told Cyclingnews: "I feel for sure it helps breathing."
The rewards are clear, and he hopes they will continue that way in a season where he hopes to contend for the overall classification in the Giro d'Italia [May 9-31] and then help teammate British 2013 Tour de France winner Chris Froome win a second Tour in July.
Before winning two stages and the overall classification of Paris-Nice, Porte won the Australian time trial title in Bunninyong and the Queen stages of both the Tour Down Under and Volta ao Algarve where he placed second and fourth overall respectively.
Porte said the idea to include swimming as a key element in pre-season training was that of Sky trainer Tim Kerrison, a former swimming and rowing coach.
"With scarring in my lungs [from pneumonia], it was the best thing to do," Porte said. “It was not too much … just to roll the arms over in the pool. I did 27km one week with about 20km average a week. That's from my background as a swimmer. I would usually just do an hour – anything between three and five kilometres.
"I was there is 'Tassie' in November and December when my fiancé [Gemma Barrett] was still in the United Kingdom. I had all the time in the world. I would ride my bike in the morning, then come back home and walk the kilometre to the pool in the 'arvo'. It was a fantastic routine. It really put me in good health …
"After last year I wasn't really sure where I would be. But now I am more confident than I have ever been."
Asked if his mind wandered following the black line up and down for an hour, Porte said: "My thoughts were mainly about the Giro.
"There is not much really going on when you are swimming. You do get your thoughts during long sessions. I enjoy it."
Porte laughs when reminded of how the sceptics of another era might have scoffed at the thought of swimming being a good off-season conditioning tool.
He says many did when he arrived in Europe in 2009 to ride for the amateur Monsummanese Grassi Mapei team.
"There is a lot of that folklore. You don't swim, you don't walk upstairs and this and that," he said. "I come to an Italian background [in cycling] where they told me not to swim, not to do core stability and things like that.
"But the sport has changed so much and if you have the right people like Tim Kerrison telling you to swim, I take their word for it."
Rupert Guinness is a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media)