Tasmanian Richie Porte is currently on the ride of his life. The 26 year-old is competing in the world's biggest bike race the Tour de France. It is quite an accomplishment for the confident Porte who will ride for the Saxo Bank Sunguard team which just happens to include three-time winner and defending champion Spain's Alberto Contador.
One could excuse the man they call 'Fish' for continuely pinching himself as he pedals around the scenic roads of France. For only a matter of four years ago he was breathing cold air out on the quiet back-roads of Launceston in nothern Tasmania.Porte would spend many hours on narrow and lonesome roads during training.
Some of those roads are still narrow, and depending on your form, still lonesome, but in July they will be lined with thousands of fans, many from Australia, urging on the Aussie in his quest to make it to Paris after three weeks on the road.
Many are not suprised at Porte's rapid progress into the European ranks. His results on the local scene weren't sensational at first, but then a fourth placing in the 2008 national road race changed everything. It managed to get him a spot with the national team in the Tour Down Under the following year, and at his first attempt in the race, he finished in the top-ten.
It was a result which made many in the sport begin to sit up and take notice.He finished ninth, just 41 seconds behind overall winner Germany's Andre Greipel. Later that year he took out the tough and demanding Tour of Tasmania riding for local Continental outfit Praties before leaving our shores and riding for an amateur Italian team under the guidance of Andrea Tafi.
"I guess the defining moment where I realised I had the capability to ride professional would have come in my first race in Europe where I rode away to win solo", he explained. "To step off the plane and win a hill top finish in Italy soon after still gives me satisfaction 4 years after".
Life changed pretty quickly for Porte after that. Leaving family and friends in Tasmania and hopping on a plane for the sport's big time took some adjusting. "To start with it was tough. Tassie is a world away from Europe and the first two years was a struggle with homesickness and also the culture shock", he says. "I believed I had the potential to make it to the top level and after three hard years of Italian Amatuer racing I got my first pro contract with Bjarne Riis and Saxo bank. Now when I look back the sacrifice was well worth it and I love living overseas. I love being in Tassie but I have adapted to Europe very well and enjoy the lifestyle of being a pro cyclist" proudly added Porte.
Porte's toughness and dedication stems from a background in triathlons where he developed a 'good work ethic towards training'. "I was coached by Mark Matthews who was a good cyclist and Triathlete in his time but happens to be as hard as nails, I certainly learnt a few lessons in how to hurt from him, but those sessions toughened me up", he says.
Porte believes the domestic scene here in Australia is a good foundation for riders preparing themselves for an assault on the roads in Europe. "To be honest I think a hard Aussie race is as hard as any. I remember racing the Tatts cup races back when I started and they were some of the hardest days on a bike", explains Porte. "I am a big fan of the Aussie scene. A race like Tour of Tassie is an awesome preparation for stage racing in Europe. Tassie has some great terrain and it doesn't come too much harder than racing back to back stages like we did when I won. Anybody who has a bad word to speak of the domestic race scene in Australia should go and do a race there", he says.
"I think there are certainly guys riding the Australian scene who could make a good career at Pro Tour level. Somebody like Pat Shaw who I spent a lot of time racing with in Italy is a talent and would be competitive in any European peloton".
There is no hiding Porte's love of Tasmania and it's no suprise to learn that one of the major influences on his career has come from the Apple Isle. Two to be precise. Andrew Christie-Johnstone and Steve Price have watched Porte's progress with a keen eye. The pair are responsible for Porte's first experience with team's racing when he rode for their Praties outfit (now known as Genesys Wealth Advisers) in Tasmania. "I owe them so much not only financially but also life experiences. Without there help I'd be working 9-5 in Tassie for sure", he said.
Porte's very first win in cycling came during a lower grade club race in Launceston. "I went solo up the Bridal track climb and held them off. I love the fact every time I hear about that the story is getting better, I heard I rode big chain ring up there but anybody who has done that climb would know that isn't humanly possible", he recalled.
That memory must seem a million miles away from his exploits in the 2010 Giro D'Italia where he not only finished seventh overall but led the race for three days and took home the white jerey for the 'best young rider' of the tour. "Now when I look back on it of course it gives me big satisfaction. I guess it was the race which sent my career in the right path big time plus I have a Pink jersey hanging on my wall and the White jersey of best young rider is something I will remember the rest of my life" he said with pride.
The experience in that tour was a stressful one for the fledgling pro-rider. So what does a world class rider like to do to get away from the pressures and daily grind of racing? If (i'm) in Tassie it is being at my parents shack on the East coast. The fishing is good and it's such a beautiful part of the world. In Europe it would have to be going out for dinner in Italy and just switching off.
Porte's role at this year's Tour de France will be a pivotal one. He will assisting the team's leader, Contador, in his quest for his fourth win in the race. Porte's relationship with the Spaniard is a good one. "He is incredible to race and train with", he said."He is a freak who can do things on a bike which are amazing. His approach to cycling is truly professional but also off the bike he is a gentleman and takes care off his riders and staff. He is a nice guy too", added Porte.
Riding alongside Contador in the Tour is a goal achieved for Porte. But he also hopes to win some major races of his own. "Classica San Sebastien after the Tour is a good race for me but then at the World champs this year I want to take the next step and finish on the podium, last year I was 4th and that hurt". (Porte finished fourth to Swiss star Fabian Cancellara in the world time trial championship in Geelong, Australia).
Porte who currently resides in Monaco, hopes to be back in Australia for Christmas before another assault on the national time trial championship in Buninyong. "I would like to have a serious go at winning the TT. Really it is best to come back for 6 weeks for me as I drink too much beer whilst home", he joked.
Drinking plenty could perhaps be a good reason for the nickname 'Fish'? "That would be because I swam 72 metres under water on the first survival camp I did with Saxo. Really it's no big deal if you are from a swimming background but it earn't me some respect in a strange kind of way. It seems to have stuck".
Porte's progress in the sport has been swift and has already taken him to great heights. There are many who are predicting big things for this talented Tasmanian and for three weeks on the roads of France you can bet on Porte being far from a 'fish out of water'.