Exclusive Richie Porte interview: "I leave Team Sky without a bad thing to say about them"

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Exclusive Richie Porte interview: “I leave Team Sky without a bad thing to say about them”

Australian reflects on his time with Team Sky before joining BMC Racing

Three Tour de France wins in four years – it’s been a remarkable run for Team Sky and their British leaders, with Sir Bradley Wiggins’ 2012 victory followed up by wins for Chris Froome in 2013 and 2015. However, only one rider has been ever-present through every stage of those four editions of the Tour – the Australian, Richie Porte.

But, after joining in 2012, Porte bids farewell to Team Sky this winter, bound for BMC Racing, after taking up a star role in the squad’s support cast at the Tour and playing a key role in each of those three victories, as well as earning a number of individual wins as a leader in his own right.

With that, Porte holds a rare privilege for an Australian sportsman – a place in the hearts of the British sporting public, thanks to his role in Wiggins’ and Froome’s victories.

In fact, during Porte’s four years at Team Sky, Australia’s cricketers have lost, regained and then lost the Ashes again, the Wallabies lost to the Lions but then knocked England out of the Rugby World Cup, and even the country’s tennis stars went down after a battle royale with the Brits in this year’s Davis Cup semi-finals – but Porte has become an adopted Brit to many Team Sky and British cycling fans.

And the feeling’s mutual, with Porte leaving Team Sky in an increasingly rare position for a professional sportsman – able to switch teams with nothing but praise for, and from, his employers for the last four years.

“Sky is the most incredible experience you can have as a professional cyclist,” Porte told RoadCyclingUK, speaking at the Cycle Show.

“It’s weird for a cyclist to be leaving a team and not have a criticism. I don’t have a single bad thing to say about Team Sky – they have revolutionised the sport and they’re just going to keep doing that. A massive percentage of the peloton are now looking at what Team Sky do.”

Porte joined the British WorldTour team’s ranks for the 2012 season as a 26-year-old after two years with Team SaxoBank, during which he had secured the white jersey as the best young rider at the 2010 Giro d’Italia having finished seventh overall, and proven his talent against the clock with back-to-back top ten finished at the 2010 and 2011 World Time Trial Championships.

Now Porte leaves Team Sky with a reputation as one of the peloton’s best climbers, a palmares brimming with week-long stage race, including twice triumphing at Paris-Nice, and a desire to add a Grand Tour to his CV.

And while Porte loathes still being called a domestique – justifiable given that his final year with Sky includes overall wins at Paris-Nice, the Volta a Catalunya and Giro del Trentino, and second place at the Tour Down Under – he says that being an integral part of Sky’s Tour de France success has been a major highlight of his time four years.

“One of the highlights has to be meeting my wife, Gemma, on the team,” Porte jokes, “but, seriously, if I look back on the racing then I’ve done the Tour de France four times and I’ve been on the winning team three times. That’s been incredible. On a personal level, the highlight has been winning Paris-Nice twice.

“It’s going to be a little bit sad to leave. I’ve met a lot of lifelong friends there and I’ve got a lot of respect for the team. It’s been an incredible four years.”

Those lifelong friends and the relationships built between staff and riders are, Porte believes, something that mark Sky out from their rivals. The understanding forged between riders on the road has never been more obvious than in Porte’s role at the service of Froome, and the friendship the pair have forged as a result.

In 2013, Porte was a near ever-present at the Kenyan-born Brit’s side as Froome rode to his first Tour de France victory, while this year Porte and Geraint Thomas helped tee-up Froome’s blistering attack on La-Pierre-Saint-Martin – an attack which ultimately sealed Froome’s second Tour victory.

But Porte says it’s when things aren’t going to plan that those personal relationships really pay off, with this year’s penultimate Tour de France stage on Alpe d’Huez the perfect example. Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, sitting second in the GC, attacked at the foot of the Alpe and dropped Froome, who was then paced through the 21 hairpins by his comrades to limit his losses and all but secure overall victory.

“I think forging relationships and building that understanding are what Sky do really well,” he said. “Everyone knows Sky are going to take it on when you get to the climbs and that’s the recipe of the success – everyone is committed to the cause, we’re all great mates on and off the bike and you certainly do learn how to ride with somebody like Chris.

“But it’s more evident when someone’s having a bad day – like Alpe d’Huez this year, for example. You can see he doesn’t need to say anything, we just know what we need to do.”

However, despite Porte’s relationship with Froome on the bike, it’s for a member of Team Sky’s support staff, and a fellow Australian, that Porte reserves the most praise. Head of athlete performance, Tim Kerrison.

Porte credits Kerrison as one of the key driving forces behind his development as a rider and admits the prospect of ending that professional relationship was something that weighed heavily on his mind when deciding whether to leave Team Sky.

“Having Tim Kerrison has been one of the biggest differences for me as a rider,” Porte said. “He’s another Australian, a sports scientist, and you learn so much from guys like that.

“One of the things I needed to weigh up when I decided to leave was not having Tim behind me anymore because he’s incredible. He’s probably one of the most intelligent people that you could work with.

“Sky are ahead of the game with the training. I’ve been to plenty of the training camps in Tenerife and you really do arrive back at the hotel on your hands and knees.

“You do train super hard but, at the end of the day, while it’s not pleasant at the time, when you get to race day, if Tim says you’re in great form then you really are.”

Life at Team Sky hasn’t all been plain sailing for Porte, however. Indeed, if it had been, he may be preparing for another year with Sky and a tilt at a Grand Tour, rather than moving to BMC.

But after an illness-ravaged 2014 season – when, having taken over leadership from Froome following the defending champion’s crash, Porte tumbled down the Tour de France GC in the second week having been second overall – misfortune struck again this year.

A stunning start to the season which included overall wins at two week-long stage races, Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya, had raised hopes Porte could challenge Alberto Contador for the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia having been handed Team Sky leadership, but the cards were repeatedly dealt against him in Italy after a promising start to the race.

First a puncture just outside the sanctity of the 3km kite cost him time overall on stage ten, before he was hit with a further two-minute penalty overnight as he had accepted a front wheel from compatriot Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE), not knowing it was against the rules to receive assistance from a rider on another team.

Another crash, again just outside the final three kilometres, eventually curtailed his race and any hopes of leading Team Sky to a first Giro d’Italia victory, with Porte abandoning the race through injury.

And Porte admits the race was a major low point in his time with Sky – and a big opportunity missed.

“There’s always going to be that sense of ‘if only’. I won a lot of races going into it. I was in the form of my life and in great shape and then a lot of things happened that were out of my control,” he said.

“You could say it’s because I didn’t know the rules, and I took the wheel change, but you’re not thinking clearly at the time.

“Getting a front puncture into a roundabout, you’re not going to have team-mates around you all the time – people criticised the team for that, but at the end of the day it all happened so quickly. That was our big goal, so obviously that’s a bit of a sore spot.”

Porte then returned to support duties at the Tour de France but despite helping Froome to a second victory, it was another race of mixed emotions, as the team faced more claims of doping and suffered abuse from a minority of ‘fans’, Froome being sprayed with urine and Porte allegedly punched.

But Porte says it’s a battle he will continue to fight on Sky’s behalf even when he trades his blue and black jersey for the red and black of BMC Racing.

And he also reiterated the promises made by Wiggins and Froome at the time of their Tour de France wins, insisting time will prove their victories to have been clean.

“They [Wiggins and Froome] cop a lot of criticism which is so unfair and I’m always going to fight that battle,” he said. “It’s a clean team and everything they have won has been above board. I agree 100 per cent the sport is in a better place because of them.

“With Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins and all of their achievements, in ten years time, all of their victories will have stood the test of time.

“I’m always going to bang that drum. I don’t think the criticism the team cops is fair but I think you have to look at it that whoever’s winning the Tour de France is going to be viewed in the same way.”

Having reflected on the past, however, it’s now time for Porte to look to the future, and a move which he says was backed by his current employers. Contrast that to the not-so-subtle criticism of Marcel Kittel’s move away from Giant-Alpecin and shows just how highly regarded the Australian’s work for Sky has been.

“I’ve spent a lot of time riding for other people,” he explained. “For me, it’s a little galling to still be called a domestique because I’ve still won races.

“But when I talked to people like Sir Dave Brailsford, Tim Kerrison, Fran Millar, Shane Sutton, they said, you know what you do need to go and take your own opportunity. I was close to going to BMC in 2012 [before Porte joined Team Sky] but it didn’t happen at the time.

“But now, I’m not going to leave a setup like Sky for just any team. BMC, I think, are a fantastic team with a great sponsor. In the Tour, and other races, the guys we have a lot of trouble at times are the BMC guys and that’s only because they’re doing such a fantastic job for their team leader.

“I think it would be nice to do the early part of the season in the same way I have done this year, but then with a massive goal of going to the Tour and being competitive. I know Tejay van Garderen well, we get along well, and I don’t see why we can’t go to the Tour and co-exist so to speak.”

If all goes to plan, Porte will once again be on the Tour start line in the Manche region of France, but for the first time in five years it won’t be in the same Team Sky squad as Froome and co.

While Wiggins and Froome have taken the headlines for their success over the past four years, the one constant through all of it has been Porte, who has achieved no shortage of success for himself, too. A British team it may be, but the departure of an Australian from the team draws the curtain on an incredibly fruitful era for Team Sky.

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