It all nearly unraveled with 18.2 kilometers remaining in the 181.5km stage 6 on March 14, at the 73rd edition of Paris-Nice — a race Australian Richie Porte (Sky) won in 2013.
However, the bloody and bruised 30-year-old Tasmanian quickly remounted his visibly battered Pinarello road bike to finish 1 minute behind stage winner and new race leader Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal). The heavily favored Porte, who had won stage 4 in dramatic fashion two days earlier with teammate Geraint Thomas immediately in tow, remained in second on general classification (GC) but fell from 1 second off GC to 36 seconds with the seventh and final stage remaining — a short, sharp, 9.6km individual time trial up the Category 1 Col d’Ãze in Nice.
“After I got back on the team bus and had a bit of a rage and rant to [Dave] Brailsford and Tim Kerrison about my bike setup with the tire pressure, they just said how about you just do any normal day,” Porte said. “So I got out of the shower and changed again and then sat on a trainer for 15 minutes and cooled down.
“Then it was business as usual, to be honest.”
Draped in the Australian green and gold stripes denoting his current reign as national time trial champion, Porte, who had scaled the climb dozens of times from his nearby European home base in Monaco, smashed the time trial stage, winning by 13 seconds over Slovenian Simon Špilak (Katusha) and more than a minute and a half (1:39) over Gallopin to take his second title in three years.
“They told me after crashing that I would be sore the next day,” said Porte. “I didn’t really feel it until the Monday morning.
“To be honest, now that I’m home [the win] feels incredible, but that week wasn’t really anything but stress.”
It has been a stellar year so far for Porte after enduring an illness- and injury-plagued 2014. Due to health issues, Porte was forced to pull out of both Paris-Nice and the Giro d’Italia and failed to finish Tirreno-Adriatico, Volta a Catalunya, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the Tour de Romandie.
Porte returned to the Tour de France to pilot teammate and defending race winner Chris Froome to his second straight win, but a stage 5 crash would ultimately force Froome out and prove Porte’s undoing in a season he’d sooner forget.
Porte assumed team leadership, but was both mentally and physically unable to deliver.
In the offseason, the triathlete-turned-roadie adhered to a strict training program that included as much as 27km of swimming each week to increase breathing capacity, as well as a very strict diet that severely limited alcohol consumption.
The combination of training and nutrition saw Porte shed more than 13 pounds and roll up to the Australian road nationals in the best shape of his life. Porte not only smashed current hour record holder Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) and failed hour attemptee Jack Bobridge (Budget Forklifts), he also went on to win on Willunga Hill for the second straight year — finishing just two seconds off race winner Dennis.
From there, Porte won his second Queen’s stage with a convincing stage 4 win at Volta ao Algarve, where he placed fourth overall.
“I’m comfortable again in the peloton,” Porte said. “I’m happy, I’m motivated, and I’m getting the respect back in the peloton from the competitors, which makes it a little bit easier, too.
“As far as being a bike rider goes, I’m mentally and physically as good as I’ve ever been.”
A new approach to fitness and food is not the only thing that has changed with Porte, who announced his engagement to his partner Gemma Barrett in January prior to nationals.
“Being engaged is the best thing that’s happened to me,” admitted Porte. “I don’t really feel the need to go out and eat dinner, drink wine, and keep up appearances with people. I just much prefer to keep it low key.”
With Catalunya back on deck, Porte is quick to point out he’s not overlooking the seven-day Spanish stage race toward his ultimate target of the Giro come May.
“They are saying the big four were in Tirreno,” said Porte. “But to be honest, [Nairo] Quintana is obviously moving well, Alberto [Contador] is not at his best and neither is [Vincenzo] Nibali. I think Paris-Nice we saw [Michal] Kwiatkowski flying and Špilak was good and Rui Costa and guys like that.”
Currently in a contract year, Porte knows the time is now to produce results.
“Obviously the Giro being a three-week race compared to Paris-Nice being eight days, it’s a little bit different,” Porte said. “I’ve read things that question me over three weeks, but I’ve done seven grand tours and I think I’ve got enough experience now and I know how to recover in between stages and not let the media hype get to me.
“I talked to Tim Kerrison about it and he has all the confidence in the world in me and I take confidence from that — after all, this guy has won the Tour a couple of times with Brad [Wiggins] and Chris [Froome].
“I’m ready,” Porte concluded. “I’m much more mature this year and I’m healthy and I’m probably fitter than I’ve ever been and ready to make the step up.”
Aaron S. Lee is a cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to VeloNews.