LLast Thursday, it looked like Richie Porte’s curse had returned for another year. 27 kilometers from the end of the brutal 18th stage of the Tour de France 2020, the Australian punctured on rough gravel roads. The 30 seconds it took for a team car to reach Porte was an eternity. By the time he had put together a replacement bike, Porte was almost a minute behind his competitors in the general classification. The hope of a podium in Paris seemed to fade.
Once touted as the obvious successor to Cadel Evans, Porte’s ambitions to win the Tour de France yellow jersey have always been cruel through misfortune and mishap. In 2014, it was pneumonia; In 2016, a puncture and a motorcycle collision caused Porte to lose vital time. In 2017, a horror crash left Porte in hospital; a year later, another crash at the end of the race.
After two weeks of racing, 2020 was shaping up to be different. While a wind-blown loss of time on stage seven put Porte out of the race for the yellow jersey, the Australian was stronger every day – staying with leaders Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar even in the most difficult climbs. The prospect of improving his previous best overall ranking, fifth in 2016, was within Porte’s reach. Then he punctured. Another day, another Tour de France accident for the Australian.
Considering his heavy racing history, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Porte’s head had tossed. Boost of morale, the Trek pilot could have driven to the finish. But in a remarkable display of endurance, Porte fought back – against the clock for nearly 20 kilometers – to rejoin the group just a few kilometers away. He finally crossed the finish line in sixth place to maintain his position in the general classification. “To have a puncture like that, of course, it’s going to happen to me,” Porte said after the stage. ” All’s well That ends well. “
Sunday, the 107th edition of the Tour de France ended well for Porte. After dodging this last episode of bad luck on Thursday, the last three stages of the race turned out to be easy. A remarkable performance in Saturday’s time trial, where Porte finished third, saw him leap over Miguel Ángel López in the overall standings to earn a place on the podium. His third place is the best overall result of all Australians on the Tour except Evans (who won in 2011 and was second twice).
The Porte podium is therefore a historic result for Australian cycling. Perhaps missing the glamor of Caleb Ewan’s recent stage victories or Michael Matthews’ green jersey triumph in 2017. Yet against a field of the world’s best climbers, Porte held on. In the 100+ years since the Australians began playing this grandest of major tournaments, only Porte and Evans have achieved such a feat.
The 35-year-old is Porte’s last chance for Tour glory. He’s out of contract at the end of this year and is set to move onto a new squad as a super-domestic, returning to the assistant role he had so admirably played for Tour winners Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Asked earlier this month if 2020 was his last hurray as a team leader, Porte was adamant “100%”.
The third de Porte ends his leadership career on a relatively high level. Beyond the grand tours, he has a sparkling record: two Paris-Nice victories, success in Volta a Catalunya, Tour de Romandie and Tour de Suisse and a national time trial title. Porte’s dominance in the Tour Down Under was such that the Willunga Hill stage is now synonymous with driver – by 2020, when he was dethroned, Porte had won the stage six times in a row.
Still, Porte’s larger legacy will largely rest on what might have been. Ever since the petite Launceston local soared in the infamous ascent of Gunns Plains on the 2008 Tour of Tasmania, Australian cycling fans have hailed his full potential. Each year, the national cycling news has been full of speculation about Porte’s form and ambitions for the coming season. After Evans retires, the brunt of the expectations of the cycling establishment rests squarely on Porte’s shoulders.
He certainly had the talent to win a Tour de France crown. There are three essential attributes to claiming yellow: climbing, time trial and team support. Porte can climb with the best mountain goats; for a time it was one of the fastest single trailers in the world; and during his time with Team Sky and BMC Racing Team, Porte had good servants in spades. But he never had that fourth, more intangible quality: luck.
Next Sunday, Porte will line up in the Australian colors for the road race of the UCI Road World Championships. Backed by a solid squad, on a hilly Italian course, he’s an outside chance – although the pitch may be more favorable to puncherstyle runners like his compatriot Matthews.
Farewell to his leadership ambitions with the rainbow jersey would be a fairytale ending for Porte, in a career that has so far been characterized by a lack of positive conclusions. Either way, his podium in Paris is just the reward of an impressive career that has made Porte one of Australia’s top cyclists.