Like he’s done every January since 2014, Porte dropped the hammer to drop his rivals. This time, the GC prize was his despite not winning on Willunga Hill, the emblematic climb that he won six years in a row.
Second on the stage Sunday behind WorldTour rookie Matt Holmes (Lotto-Soudal), but first in the Tour Down Under for his second career overall title, Porte was elated with his first stage race victory since 2018.
“Now I can see that if I can get a good routine I can win bike races still,” Porte said. “Last year was not an easy year, and people are so quick to jump on you and kick you while you’re down. To come back here and win feels like to silence a few.”
Rediscovering the winning momentum is critical for Porte, who struggled with health issues that handicapped him throughout 2019 in his first year in Trek-Segafredo colors.
A determined Porte rode to 11th in last year’s Tour de France, the first he completed since his career-best fifth in 2016, but he never had that trademark pop in his legs. The veteran Tasmanian knows he’s only as good as his last result, and he’s hoping victory in Australia will bode well for his upcoming European season.
“Going back to Europe, I just need to keep it up,” Porte said. “Last year about this time I got sick. That’s my goal is to stay healthy and I think I can have a good year.”
A resolute Porte stayed in Tasmania over the winter, settling in with his family and putting in long training rides to build his base. The Tour Down Under is an annual rite, one that Porte takes seriously. Backed by strong support, including world champion Mads Pedersen and Kenny Elissonde, Porte won stage 3 at Paracombe and set himself up for victory going into Sunday’s finale at Willunga.
Porte won the Tour Down Under in 2017, the only other year the Paracombe climb was featured, yet there were four other second-places along the way during his six-year Willunga reign. This year, Porte wanted the overall.
Porte was confident he could deliver despite starting two seconds behind longtime rival and two-time defending champion Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott).
Willunga is his mountain. He’d won on the steep, dusty hill along the spine of the Adelaide Hills every year since 2014. Coinciding with Australia’s national holiday, fans were lined up five-deep to watch Porte drop the accelerator with just over 1km to go.
“It’s not an easy race to win,” Porte said. “For an Australian, it’s such a great race to win. Now I go back to Europe, and hopefully keep the ball rolling.”
Trek-Segafredo brought a stronger team this year to help Porte take on nemesis Mitchelton-Scott, among them American Kiel Reijnen.
“We were all-in for Richie this week, and he had the legs to pull it off, so he certainly deserves it,” Reijnen said. “The GC was the goal. He’s won here at Willunga six times, to win again would be nice, but it wasn’t the overall objective. It’s a nice way to start the season with a win, and we can continue momentum into the spring classics.”
Admitting that Porte was the stronger climber, Mitchelton-Scott was playing a tactical game all week. Impey patiently ticked off time bonuses in stages 4 and 5 to carry the leader’s jersey into the final stage by a slender two-second lead.
Expecting Porte to win again Sunday, Mitchelton-Scott watched in delight as a big group pulled clear to gobble up the finish-line time bonuses. When Impey faded on the lower flanks, the prize was Porte’s for the taking.
“He’s been the best climber of this race,” said Matt White, sport director at rival Mitchelton-Scott. “His sponsors would want him to continue that form into Europe, because that’s where the big money is. That’s where he gets paid to deliver. It’s a real nice start for anyone who wins this race. I’m sure there are bigger goals for him this season.”
Taking control of his destiny, Porte dropped everyone and then reeled in all the breakaway riders, except one. By the time he crossed the line for second, it didn’t matter if he was second. He’d won, and the win sets him up nicely going into 2020.
“You still have to prove yourself,” Porte said. “You’re only as good as your last result. That’s professionally cycling.”
Porte’s bête noire remains the Tour and unfinished business at the Olympic Games, but when it comes to the Tour Down Under, Porte is quickly creating a league of his own.