Dating back to 1930, the Tour of Tasmania has long been a proving ground for Australia’s best cyclists. The first-ever edition was won by Sir Hubert Opperman, after whom Cycling Australia’s prestigious “Oppy medal” – for the best cyclist each year – is named today. Cadel Evans, the only Australian to win the Tour de France yellow jersey, claimed the Tasmanian equivalent twice in the late 1990s.
In October 2008, 23-year-old Richie Porte was sitting well back in the overall classification at the Tour of Tasmania after six stages. A Launceston local, Porte had come to cycling late after initially pursuing triathlon. He certainly had promise – Porte had spent the prior season racing the amateur circuit in Italy, which he later described as “cycling’s school of hard knocks” – but remained largely unheralded. Working odd jobs as an AFL boundary umpire, courier and lifeguard, the glamour of cycling’s major professional races was a world away.
But on a stage from Ulverstone to Penguin in the state’s north, Porte showed the climbing ability that would ultimately send him to the Tour de France. As a breakaway approached the bottom of the fearsome Gunns Plains climb, Porte attacked. The chasers grimaced, but Porte soared up the category 1 ascent to finish the stage solo with a 95-second advantage. It was a remarkable win, and sent Porte into the leader’s jersey. At the time, CyclingNews described him as “a man on a mission”. A day later, Porte won again on his home-town Poatina climb, to secure the overall race victory.
“He was a star in the making,” Porte’s team manager that day, Andrew Christie-Johnston, says now. “You just don’t see a win like that very often. It was incredibly impressive. From then on, we knew he had a future in Europe.”
Since that day in Penguin, the Australian cycling fraternity have speculated about Porte’s full potential. When Evans won the Tour de France two years later, Porte was touted as a potential yellow jersey successor. When he joined upstart Team Sky in 2012, the sky seemed the limit for him. The Alpine climbs of the Tour de France might be more exotic than their Tasmanian counterparts, but Porte quickly proved he could stay with the best riders on either side of the world.
Yet it has been misfortune rather than triumph that has followed Porte ever since. First, it was the success of Sky teammates Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, whom Porte dutifully rode in support of at big races. Then, in 2014, a mid-race injury to Froome gave Porte his first general classification opportunity at the Tour de France. Pneumonia hit, and he finished a disappointing 23rd.
A year later Froome was back as team leader and Porte helped his close friend to another yellow jersey. A switch to BMC Racing Team in 2016 offered the prospect of his own time in the sun, but a puncture on one stage and a collision with a motorbike on another hampered his ambitions. While Porte’s fifth place overall was his best performance at the race, it was not enough. “I wanted more,” he later told Guardian Australia.
2017 was even more painful. Porte was in career best-form, but a sickening crash on stage nine left him in hospital with fractures to his shoulder and pelvis. Twelve months later, Porte broke his collarbone during a more innocuous pile-up, again on stage nine. It seemed Porte had walked over a black cat. Australian broadcaster SBS began referring to the ninth stage as 8B, in the hope of breaking the jinx. While Porte managed to complete the 2019 edition, his 11th-place finish was nothing spectacular.
This year has been different. Porte has kept his head down, followed the moves and looked comfortable on even the steepest ascents. On Sunday, Porte finished third on the mountainous 15th stage to move into sixth place overall with one week remaining. Has his time finally come? “Richie is showing great signs going into the last week,” says Christie-Johnston. “Sunday was very promising.”
Time lost due to a cross-winds mishap earlier in the race, and the dominant form of current leader Primož Roglič, mean that the yellow jersey is an unlikely ultimate outcome for Porte. He is currently 2min 13s behind the Slovenian. But with three consecutive days of mountains ahead, and a hilly time trial on Saturday (a discipline where Porte thrives), anything is possible. A repeat of his 2008 Tour of Tasmania solo heroics could see Porte become only the second Australian to win the Tour de France.
Even if Porte does not follow in Evans’ footsteps this week, a spot on the podium is firmly within his grasp. After years of Tour torment, that will be a long overdue result for this determined Tasmanian.