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Richie Porte wins in Tour de France

Richie Porte during the 13th stage of the 2014 Tour de France – 197.5km from Saint-Etienne to Chamrousse. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

The dust has settled now on the 2014 Tour de France, with Vincenzo Nibali’s well-deserved win, the French resurgence and the other race jerseys and classifications awarded.

The 2014 Tour should probably go down in history as one of the most important so far for Richie Porte, who hails from Launceston in Tasmania – made even more significant given it has only been his fourth year in the world’s biggest bike race.

On July 9 during Stage 5 this year, the eyes of Australian cycling fans collectively swung towards Porte. He was promoted to leader of Team Sky after teammate, and Tour favourite, Chris Froome abandoned after crashing in the wet conditions.

I’m usually no fan-boy of individual professional cyclists, because so much of what happens is due to the group around them. But this time I think the biggest winner in the 2014 Tour de France was Richie Porte, even though the official results show otherwise.

Here’s why.

The context: ethics and integrity challenges for cycling

It’s no secret that the sport of cycling has had a bit of an enduring image problem, since forever. Much has been written about professional cycling’s long battle with drugs and doping, and other indiscretions.

No doubt more will be written in the future as the global audience of this sport continues to grow, and with it the immense individual rewards for success.

Fortunately, this “ethics and integrity” challenge for cycling is recognised internationally with considerable efforts in this area by the Union Cycliste Internationale, the World Anti Doping Agency and the Bike Pure organisation for example.

Cycling Australia also established an Integrity Panel in 2013, and appointed inaugural members after a government appointed governance review. More news in this area is hopefully coming after CA finalises its new Board.

The frustrating thing though about the ethics and integrity developments in Australian sport these days is there is still uncertainty and disagreement about what these concepts actually mean in elite sport where so much emphasis is placed upon winning.

And arguably, there are also too few elite sportspeople (especially in cycling it seems) contributing to the public debates about these issues - unless they’re caught out that is, and they are probably not the people that should be leading this debate anyway.

Perhaps its not the role of active elite athletes to be talking about sports integrity. It is admittedly a fraught area. Maybe it’s better to lead by example, by actions?

That’s where I think riders such as Richie Porte come in.

Enter Richie Porte

From an ethics and integrity point of view, Australian cycling has a perfect ambassador in Richie Porte.

I’m not talking about him being a formal spokesperson for the cause. Instead, I believe it’s his actions and other contributions as a high profile Australian professional cyclist that have greater value here.

There’s no doubt that Porte is an immense Australian cycling talent. In the 2013 book by John Trevorrow and Ron Reed (Green, Gold & Bold: Australia at the 100th Tour de France), Richie Porte is listed as number 10 in the 50 greatest Australian road cyclists.

And consider the following facts. Richie:

  • switched from triathalon to cycling in 2006 relatively late at the age of 21
  • turned professional with Team Saxo-Bank in 2010
  • finished 4th in the elite men’s time trial 2010 World Championships, Geelong
  • won best young rider classification in 2010 Giro d’Italia (finishes 7th overall, and is race leader for three days)
  • helped Alberto Contador to 5th place in 2011 Tour de France and 1st in Giro d’Italia
  • won 2012 Volta ao Algarve, Portugal
  • helped Brad Wiggins win the 2012 Tour de France
  • helped Chris Froome win the 2013 Tour de France
  • won 2013 Paris-Nice race (first Australian to do so)
  • finished 3rd in the 2014 Australian National Road Championship.
Porte on the podium after winning the 2013 Paris-Nice cycling race. EPA/Yoan Valat

That’s an impressive resume for one who is only nine or so years into his cycling career (see here for Porte’s full palmarès).

But it’s not just the podium places and the leader board efforts that should impress us about Richie Porte. More importantly, in public Porte simply comes across as a nice person. An everyday guy. An everyman.

His Tour Diary for Fairfax this year also shows that. Look at these snippets from Porte’s thoughts during this year’s Tour:

29 July: It is still the most amazing feeling to ride into Paris after three weeks of racing. It is a privilege to experience that after watching the Tour as a kid and seeing all the greats charge into Paris like that.

26 July: Pizza 21 is a real goody with prosciutto crudo, truffles, fresh tomatoes, and mozzarella…it is absolutely brilliant.

23 July: The highlight was at the team bus, when a French lady gave me a block of Toblerone chocolate. It was a pick-me-up I guess. It was a nice gesture. And coming this late in a Tour, especially when things are not going so well, such gestures can sometimes make a huge difference.

20 July: I’m going to keep keeping on. And as the old cliché goes: the sun will rise tomorrow. The team has been absolutely brilliant. I am not going to give up. Whatever I do now, I will be right behind the team strategy, whether it is for me or perhaps to allow someone else to have a chance.

10 July: Being a pro bike rider is about throwing caution to the wind. The more you think about it, the worse it can be. All you can do is get on with it.

Porte writes about chocolate. He writes about pizza. He writes about teammates. He celebrates the wins of riders on rival teams. And he writes about not giving up.

This, from one of the world’s best professional cyclists competing in the biggest race. All class. All normal.

John Trevorrow, himself an accomplished Australian cyclist of yesteryear, said this of Porte in his recent book:

There is no doubt he can become one of the superstars of world cycling. But can Richie handle the pressure that will undoubtedly build as he moves from being the super domestique, who gets an occasional opportunity to shine, to the leader of the world’s number one team in a Grand Tour? If he does then the world is his oyster.

Winning isn’t everything

Everyone loves a winner, that’s true. However, if we care about ethics and integrity in the sports we love, and if we want to see good values modeled by the sportspeople we admire then we should be ready to notice and celebrate things such as humility, courage, determination, poise and optimism.

These things matter, especially when you’re not winning.

Richie Porte probably wouldn’t want to be the poster boy for the lofty ideas of ethics and integrity in Australian cycling. But the truth is he displays many admirable traits worth noticing, whether winning or losing.

Porte is widely regarded by Australian cycling fans and many experts as the next Australian professional rider most likely to win a Grand Tour such as the Tour de France.

This might be wishful thinking by fans and others impatient for a successor to Cadel Evans, now entering the twilight years of his amazing career.

However, regardless of whether or not Richie Porte fulfils the destiny expected of him, with personal traits like those on display during this year’s Tour de France he wins big either way.

And so does Australian cycling in my view.

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