The Tour de France kicks off in Dusseldorf, Germany on Saturday, July 1. In the lead-up to the Grande Boucle, we’ll be counting down the top-10 GC contenders this week. Here is rider #2. Want to brush up on the other contenders? Read up on riders #10-7, riders #6-3, and rider #1.
There was a moment early in last year’s Tour de France when Richie Porte could have simply given up.
A puncture at the worst possible moment — with about five kilometers to go in stage 2 — saw him desperately wait as neutral support slowly changed his wheel. As he stood by the bicycle, the peloton barreled into Cherbourg for an uphill sprint won by Peter Sagan. The Tour’s clock was unforgiving. Porte limped across the line having lost nearly two minutes. His hopes to dethrone former teammate Chris Froome from the Tour’s podium were over.
Dejected? Yes. Surrender? No way.
“Last year taught me a lot,” Porte says. “I thought my Tour was over before it even started. I’m not a quitter. The guys see how much I fight.” Porte has always had a reputation for gritty panache, and last summer it was on full display. It was the manner in which he clawed his way back over the ensuing three weeks to secure a career-best fifth overall — less than one minute off the final podium — that confirmed his true character. The performance sealed his future, and brought him the leadership role at BMC Racing for the 2017 Tour de France.
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“We know Richie is a fighter. We saw it last year,” says BMC Racing manager Jim Ochowicz. “We won the Tour once [Cadel Evans in 2011], and with Richie, we believe we can do it again.”
In one of the most significant behind-the-scenes dramas of the 2016-2017 offseason, BMC Racing switched leaders for the Tour. American Tejay van Garderen, the team’s longtime Tour leader, was given two opportunities: lead BMC at the Giro d’Italia, or ride the Tour as Porte’s lieutenant. Either way, Porte claimed outright Tour leadership.
The move was less a condemnation of van Garderen, and more an elevation of Porte. Both men faced adversities during the 2016 Tour, yet Porte overcame the obstacles. As van Garderen struggled with illnesses, form, and motivation, Porte hung tough, clawing back time on crucial stages. BMC brass believed he deserved his shot.
Porte is grabbing the opportunity by the horns.
“It’s now or never for me,” Porte says. “These are going to be my last couple of years as an endurance athlete. I need to have a massive next few years.”
It’s the latest storybook twist to a very unlikely career. At a barrel-chested 5-feet-6, Porte doesn’t have the spindly look of a grand tour contender. Yet his motor and pluck have disproven one doubter after another. A former triathlete and swimmer, Porte came to cycling when he was already in his early-20s. In 2010, he revealed his promise in his first WorldTour season, wearing the pink jersey and riding to seventh in his grand tour debut at the Giro. Former team boss Bjarne Riis once famously quipped that Porte was too heavy to ever truly become a major contender.
Those are just the kind of words that motivate Porte, who has defied expectations throughout his career.
“People wondered about my ability to race for three weeks. My job used to be to sacrifice for others,” Porte says. “To lead is a massive opportunity, and it gives me confidence that I wasn’t far off the podium. Without some of the bad luck, maybe it would have gone the other way.”
After that initial success, it took five more grand tours and three more years before he reached the top-20 again, with 19th in the 2013 Tour. During that span, he emerged as Sky’s top super-domestique for Bradley Wiggins and then Froome. In their shadows, he took his chances in one-week stage races, twice winning Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya, Volta ao Algarve, and Giro del Trentino. He finally took home the flowers at the Santos Tour Down Under in 2017 after finishing on the podium three years in a row. Porte could have remained Sky’s well-paid helper, or he could have pursued team leadership for himself. He chose the latter.
“I knew what I had at Sky, and I was happy there,” Porte says. “I need to take my own opportunities. That’s why I am here.”
Porte dreams of following in the footsteps of Cadel Evans to win the Tour. Like Evans, something has always stalled Porte’s progression in grand tours. In 2014, he was christened “Plan B” after Froome crashed out. Despite riding into podium range, he soon succumbed to bronchial problems, and limped into Paris a distant 23rd.
His first chance at outright grand tour leadership at the 2015 Giro ended disastrously. First, he made an illegal wheel change with compatriot Simon Clarke of Orica-GreenEdge (rules state that riders cannot swap wheels with those from opposing teams) that led to a costly time penalty. Then, in a later stage, he crashed outside the three-kilometer-to-go safety zone, losing more time. Finally, he abandoned. Though he’s never won a grand tour stage, he’s been in the top-five on nine occasions. Some say Porte was already unofficially BMC’s Tour leader in 2016, but the team didn’t play it that way publicly. So for BMC brass to openly declare that Porte is their man for the Tour sends a strong message, both inside and outside the team.
In a mark of humility, van Garderen graciously accepted the decision. “It was pretty clear that Richie deserves his chance, and when the team expressed it to me that Richie was going to be the guy, it didn’t come as a shock,” van Garderen says. “They left the door open for me to be ‘Plan B’ at the Tour, but after I gave it some thought, and when the courses came out, I said, ‘Okay, let’s go do the Giro.’”
With van Garderen vowing not to stir the waters, the door was open for Porte to take over. And with the Tour as his central focus, Porte spent more time honing his climbing skills at high-altitude training camps. When he did race, he won emphatically at the Santos Tour Down Under and the Tour de Romandie. He also won the Critérium du Dauphiné’s stage 4 time trial and was 10 seconds away from an overall title there in June.
Flash forward eight years from his Giro debut, and Porte has emerged as one of Team Sky’s biggest rivals. BMC Racing also tapped Nicholas Roche, another former Sky rider, to help Porte take on his former team.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to have to be Richie who can beat Froome in the mountains,” Roche says. “Not many people have beaten Froome. If anyone can, I think it’s Richie.”
Porte picked up a few tricks along the way, learning to race and train the “Sky way.” He shed some of his baby fat, which Riis used to complain about. He got married and became more focused on his off-season diet. (He’s sworn off his favorite drink, Bough’s Beer, at least until the winter.)
“When I look back at photos of me in 2008, 2009, I was probably 10 kilograms [22 pounds] heavier,” Porte says. “I looked like I’d eaten a few pies. It’s been a journey, with a lot of ups and downs.”
Now 32, Porte is ready to stand tall during the Tour, and he’s not about to let the opportunity slip by. Come July, it’s all in for the yellow jersey.
“Froomey’s the benchmark, and I know what he can do,” Porte says. “If I never win the Tour, well, that’s life, but at least I want to try.”
THE SCORE: 37/40
At this point, Porte hasn’t yet taken either a victory in the mountains or an overall podium place at a grand tour. (He was seventh in the 2010 Giro and fifth in the 2016 Tour de France). Working for Chris Froome, he looked like he had the makings of an exceptional climber. He has the top three in his legs.
TACTICAL SENSE: 9/10
The Australian is smart. He came to bike racing late, but now has plenty of experience. Still, he’s yet to find himself in a good position at the right time. A lieutenant to Contador at Saxo Bank and then to Froome at Team Sky, where he did get the chance to try his own luck at the 2014 Giro, he is finally the sole leader.
TIME TRIALS/FLATS: 9/10
Time trials are his other speciality, but here again his results fluctuate (fourth in Megève and 21st in the Ardeche in 2016). While he lost time on the flat last year, that was down to a mechanical incident. At 32, time is running out. If good fortune smiles on him, he will be a major threat.
TEAM STRENGTH: 10/10
It took time for BMC to realize that Tejay van Garderen didn’t have the makings of a Cadel Evans, winner of the 2011 Tour. This year, the team is placing all of its trust in Porte, who will be backed by heavyweights like Nicolas Roche. This is currently one of the strongest teams around.