After growing up in Tasmania, an island off the southern coast of Australia, BMC Racing’s Richie Porte has come a long way to establish himself as one of the world’s greatest stage racers. Although crashes spoiled his past two Tour de France attempts, he hopes to put bad luck behind him this year. We caught up with the amiable 33-year-old to talk about his origins on this exotic island, bike racing and friendship.
Words and images by James Startt, European Associate to Peloton
PELOTON Magazine: Richie, you are often described as being a rider from Tasmania rather than simply from Australia. What does that mean to you? Most of us only know about the Tasmanian Devil, but there must be much more to your island. What is it like to be from Tasmania? Do Australians categorize you in some way? You seem to be quite proud of your origins. And how does a kid from Tasmania become a WorldTour cyclist?
Richie Porte: Oh, it’s a different world. Half the time when I talk about Tasmania I am explaining to people that we are Australian. I have an Australian passport. Mainland Australians are always hanging shit on people from Tasmania, making fun of us for being such a small island. But it is no different really than say what Sardinia is to Italy or Corsica is to France.
Tasmania for me is just a beautiful part of the world…and the people are good too! They are very relaxed, maybe more so than even mainland Australians. I’m proud to be from Tasmania. It is the one place where I can go back and totally relax. In Monaco [his home in Europe], I am never 100-percent relaxed. In some ways Tasmania is the real Australia. Tasmania is more laid back than Australia—and Australia is known for being laid back. In Tasmania you can get out the door and in 15 minutes never see a red light. I love being back there. It is a great place for riding. I may be a little biased but Tasmania is great for riding. It’s up and down all day and there always seems to be a prevailing headwind. My favorite climb is this 135-kilometer loop with over 2,000 meters [6,500 feet] of climbing. That gives you a pretty good idea of what it is like. There are no massive mountains but it is always up and down, with amazing national parks.
I started out doing triathlon as a kid and got about as far as I could with that before getting into cycling. I’ve got my parents and a couple of other people to thank for getting over to Europe and becoming a professional cyclist. It’s been quite a journey. But it is that way for everyone.
PELOTON: Before you became team leader on BMC you earned your wings, so to speak, riding for Alberto Contador and Chris Froome. What did you take away from each one of these champions?
Porte: Well, the year I rode with Alberto in 2011 there wasn’t much I could do. I rode with him in the Giro d’Italia that year and he was so strong that he just didn’t need much help. I would ride at the front to help make the selection, but that was it. To be honest, I probably learned more from Chris. I was kind of mates with Chris when he was in the shadow of Brad [Wiggins]. The thing with Chris is that he is just so professional both on and off the bike. He never skirts efforts. He’s always just very mentally strong.
And in racing he doesn’t give anything away. Look at the Dauphiné last year [when Porte was wearing the leader’s jersey on the last day and Froome’s Sky team attacked from the start of the final stage, exploding the race—although Froome eventually cracked as well, allowing Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang to take the victory]. And I guess that is how you have to be if you are going to win those big races.
Personally I don’t know if I would have done that. I think of myself as a little more loyal to my mates. For instance, with a mate like Will Clarke from Tasmania, I would never do anything to hurt him in a race. I would never do that to a friend. But Chris is like that. He doesn’t give any favors.
PELOTON: And how did you take the news when Chris failed a doping test in the Vuelta a España?
Porte: Let’s just wait and see. He’s got to defend himself. But at the end of the day cycling is not going to win either way is it? It’s a massive shame.
PELOTON: Richie, you are one of the world’s best climbers. But descending is playing a bigger and bigger role in racing today. Does a small guy like you feel as though you are at a disadvantage on the descents?
Porte: Yeah, being smaller is a little bit harder. Looking back to my crash in the Tour, people were saying this and that, but I made it down to the bottom of Le Mont du Chat with Chris and Jakob Fuglsang and these guys. I’m not a risk-taker but I can descend comfortably. But on the day that I crashed, as soon as I touched the brakes, my rear wheel locked up on me. It’s just part of cycling, you’ve got to go up and you’ve got to go down. At the end of the day if guys like Nibali—one of the best descenders in the peloton—have had big crashes. I think it is only a matter of time before someone is going to have a big crash. For me, having that crash and having so much time sitting on the couch to think about it, made me understand that it was going to take some time to mentally get over it.
PELOTON: Is that—crazy descending—something you can prepare for psychologically in the future?
Porte: Yes, 100 percent. I’ve already got a good friend from Tassie that is a psychiatrist and of course we have touched on it, because at the end of the day it is a massive trauma. It’s no different than someone having a bad car crash. As soon as you start going down the hill fast you have these…but at the end of the day it’s a bike race and you have to get to the bottom. That said, it is going to get to the point in my career where—well, I’ve got a baby on the way in May—a bike race is not the most important thing.
PELOTON: You had an amazing start to the season last year. Do you feel as though you are back to the same level now and will you have a similar calendar this year?
Porte: Yeah, I’d like to replicate what I did last year, going into the Tour this year. I won the Tour of Romandie and got second in the Dauphiné. I had a good run-in but this year I would like to be able to go and tick that box at the Tour. I’m not asking for any good luck. I’m just asking not to have any bad luck, not to have any motor bikes in front of us, no crashes and really have a chance to see what I can do so that there are no “could’ves” or “should’ve’s.” I’m just hoping that I can go to the Tour and just be there and challenge for the podium.