Richie Porte has been dogged by so much misfortune at the Tour de France that even if he didn’t admit it publicly, then privately he must have thought he was cursed and it just wasn’t meant to be.
He spent so long riding for others that when he did get his chance as team leader in the past five years, something always seemed to go wrong.
A motorbike got in the way up Mont Ventoux in 2016 and stopped him in his tracks, he left the Mont du Chat in 2017 in the back of an ambulance in a neck brace after breaking his collarbone and pelvis, and as if by fate, he crashed out on Stage 9 again in 2018 with another broken collarbone.
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But this year he returned for one last crack at the world’s biggest bike race at the age of 35, knowing he would miss the birth of his daughter Eloise who arrived in the first week, but also that it would be the final time he would lead a team in his own right.
And something about him was different this year.
“He’s in a good headspace and he looks relaxed,” his one-time coach and long-time friend Andrew Christie-Johnston told News Corp during the Tour.
It wasn’t without its drama of course. He lost time in cruel crosswinds on Stage 7 and had to chase for the final 30km of Stage 18 on gravel roads when he punctured, but as he said “it couldn’t be that easy, could it?”
Porte chipped away slowly but surely over the first two weeks, gaining time with a top 10 finish on Stage 9 and got better the longer the race went.
In the third and final week he was third on Stage 15, fifth on Stage 16 and sixth on Stage 17 when he suddenly believed that a podium finish was possible.
Australia held its breath as he sat atop his bike on the start ramp of the Stage 20 time trial on Saturday night, but few knew what was about to unfold
The race that many thought would never happen because of the coronavirus pandemic produced one of the most incredible finishes in its history.
Porte has won some big races in his career. Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya, Tour of Romandie, Tour de Suisse and the Tour Down Under (twice).
But there was a certain beauty in that the motivation for him to produce one of the rides of his life on Saturday wasn’t the fact that he would win the Tour de France but would simply get to stand on the podium which is the culmination of a childhood dream in Tasmania.
And driven by that determination that was carved on the roads around Launceston and then crafted in Europe when he moved abroad at the age of 23, he turned the dream into reality.
Nine years after Cadel Evans became the first Australian to win the Tour de France with a similar performance in the penultimate stage time trial, Porte became just the second Australian in history to finish on the podium.
Porte needed to make up 1mins 39secs on the third placed Miguel Lopez and blasted his way across the undulating 36km course with the third fastest time of the day to clinch that spot.
On a spectacular day, the yellow jersey also changed hands with Slovenian 21-year-old Tadej Pogocar producing a herculean ride to move from second into first and beat compatriot Primoz Roglic.
But in the world of professional cycling there was as much sentiment and goodwill for Porte finishing third as there was for Pogocar who won.
Ten years after he announced himself to world cycling with seventh and the white jersey as best young rider at the Giro d’Italia, and six months after he was doing six-hour rides on his stationary trainer at home as Europe went into lockdown, Porte could barely put into words what this year’s Tour meant to him.
“It’s an absolute dream, I grew up watching the Tour on the other side of the world, seeing guys like Robbie McEwen, Cadel Evans and Brad McGee,” he said.
“To finally crack the podium here is an absolutely incredible feeling. It’s going to take a little while to sink in but you know, it’s been a journey. Most of you know the battles I’ve had, the dramas along the way.
“It doesn’t matter what races you have won, the Tour’s the one you are judged on.
“I said to my wife that the photo I want to have when I retire is the one standing on the podium in Paris.”
His wife Gemma, who he has FaceTimed twice a day every day during the Tour to speak with his son and see his newborn daughter, tweeted:
“To say you’ve done us proud would be a serious understatement. So so, immensely proud of you.”
So is Tasmania and so is the rest of the country because if there’s one thing Australians love more than an underdog in sport then it’s an underdog who has paid his dues and deserves everything he gets.
Like Evans who won the Tour at the age of 34 in 2011, Simon Gerrans who won Liege-Bastogne-Liege at 33 in 2014, and Mathew Hayman who lived his boyhood dream at 38 when he won the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, Porte’s third place at the Tour has put the icing on the cake of an incredible career.
It also showed again that sometimes the cycling gods do finally shine upon those who are simply not prepared to give up and keep riding, and Porte has done exactly that.