It's hard not to feel a little down about cycling following Tyler Hamilton's tell-all interview with 60 Minutes. Sure, for most everyone, his words weren't surprising, just a further underlining of a fact that is all too apparent - the sport of cycling was a dirty, dirty place in years gone by. It's by no means squeaky clean now, but on Saturday, on the ferocious slopes of the Monte Zoncolan, I got a small peek into what has to be seen as a changing of the guard.
With six kilometers to go, the leaders were fighting hard for the stage win and overall supremacy. Igor Anton was just up the road, pushing forward the gap that would see him to victory, whilst behind, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, and the best of the rest chased, pushed, did everything they could to dispense with a rival and/or get up to Anton.
Behind, however, the scene was quite different. Riders lurched forward, almost coming to a halt over the top of pedal strokes with the 20+% section of road doing its best to eliminate all signs of forward progress.
As the favorites disappeared into the brewing storm clouds above, the fans descended upon their heroes, the arms went out, the connection to rider was made: the pushes began.
In a comedy of assistance, riders almost seemed to duel as pushes came from left, right, center. Some were given an almost free ride over the section of road I was on. I saw Danilo Di Luca go from 50-meters behind David Millar to flying right by on the strength of a couple of pushes.
Of course, the Italians were favored in all of this, followed by favored stars, and then the riders that pointed at their asses and begged.
I participated. I admit it. I felt bad. The lunacy of the climb, the agonizing faces that accompanied the nearly two dozen percentage points of gradient, the thought of what was to come the next day, and the festive atmosphere of the push got me into the party. Plus, someone had to help the non-Italians, right?
Then came Richie Porte.
The hero of last year's Giro climbed quietly, without expression. Pushes followed all around him, but he stayed the course. I took a picture, then went to give him a good shove forward, and what followed stunned me.
"Don't push me. F*** off."
I stepped back, mouth utterly agape. Did that really just happen?
I was a bit hurt at first, you know that moment where you're like, well, to hell with you then, but then my wounded pushing pride subsided and got me to thinking…
Richie Porte has been touted as one of the leaders of a new generation of riders - a generation that loathes the very idea of doping; a generation that is not just clean, but unabashedly so, publicly, privately. For this generation, which sits on the cusp of superstardom, the only way forward is through hard work, grit, and years of sacrifice.
For Richie Porte, it goes all the way to the Zoncolan. While a friendly push up a murderous Monte never hurt anyone, it goes against this new credo - the only way forward is through one's own personal power. The help of a needle, pill, or even a push is not.
So while Richie did write me back this morning and apologize for his 'potty words', I say - no apologies necessary. His level of integrity is foreign to me. I'm blown away. I could never imagine turning down help on that climb.
I'm happy to know that it's someone like Richie that could well be the one I'll be writing about as a Grand Tour contender in the years to come.
It's refreshing, it's encouraging - to any outside help: I'll do it on my own.
Respect Richie. Respect.