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The prospect of retirement can be quite difficult for some professional athletes to stomach and accept.
Unlike mainstream society where calling time on the daily grind comes with grey hair and aging, later in life, athletes, including cyclists, face it at a much younger age — let’s say typically their 30s, maybe 40s at best.
It can be especially foreboding for those who have come through institutionalized development programs — recruited as teenagers into a system where everything is provided and daily validation the norm.
When you take that all away, re-adjusting to either not being the ‘star’ of the show or assimilating into the ‘real world’ where you do your own laundry, aren’t congratulated every day for doing your job, aren’t an object of desire or earning the same big bucks, it can lead to health problems. Specifically, in my experience interviewing athletes as a journalist for 14 years, mental health problems.
I once spoke with an Australian footballer for a ‘Where Are They Now?’ article and he admitted, in one of the most raw and intimate conversations I’ve ever conducted, that he suffered from depression for two years after he retired from the game, unable to make peace with his new reality. He didn’t know how much a carton of milk cost because he’d never done his own grocery shopping.
I’ve come across similar instances in cycling, which I have written about before: winners who could not come to terms with not being number-one in a team as their generation came and went, those who literally could not say the ‘R’ word in fear of the unknown they would soon face.
However, there are exceptions — like decorated Australian all-rounder Richie Porte, who is not only clear on his retirement but has been comfortable, if not proactive on making the switch from support to superstar and back again, which is rare.
Porte commenced the final season of his celebrated career this year having firmly, 12 months before when he re-joined Ineos Grenadiers, declared he would retire from bike racing at the end of 2022.
There was no reluctance, no hanging onto the edge of a closing door with the tips of his fingernails digging in, even though Porte has achieved some of his best victories in the “twilight” of his career. He was sound with what was his decision, not a foregone conclusion decided for him through ailing form, the transfer market or want of a contract.
Porte for a long time has been the face of grand tour racing in Australia, specifically the Tour de France. He recorded the nation’s second-best result there in 2020, finishing third behind Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic while competing for Trek-Segafredo. Cadel Evans, who won the 2011 Tour, is the only other Australian title contender to have stood there.
However, when the proud Tasmanian returned to Ineos Grenadiers he stipulated that his days as a grand tour title contender were done. Standing on the podium in Paris was as good as a win and he didn’t want to shoulder the internal and external pressures, seen and unseen, which come with being the team leader and yellow jersey challenger at a grand tour. The 2021 Tour, ahead of which he was intent on reprising his role as a super domestique, but was presented as one of four leaders, Porte later reflected wasn’t enjoyable and together with the team he chose to compete at the Giro d’Italia this year instead of La Grande Boucle, which during his time away from Ineos was the focus.
The Giro, which finishes in Verona on Sunday, doubles as the last grand tour of Porte’s career. It’s passed as an understated milestone that the 37-year-old has approached modestly, but not one which has been lost on his young family, including wife Gemma and two kids, who have been roadside supporting Porte, who is riding for current maglia rosa Richard Carapaz.
“I’m looking forward to this last week of racing, try and make that sacrifice of being away from them [family] worthwhile,” Porte reflected the last rest day.
“It justifies why this is my last season; to see the family is incredible for me, but also now that my son is almost four years old, he can take it in a little bit and appreciate. So, it’s nice he’s going to have memories of what his dad used to do before he was a fat, beer-swilling couch potato!”
It’s hard to imagine Porte being any of those things considering his achievements in the sport, which is more remarkable given he came to cycling late, racing as an amateur around the same age that Pogacar won his first yellow jersey, and was never a part of any institutionalised structure, although did the same races as contemporaries who were part of the “boys’ club”.
Porte’s swan song race schedule is a demarcation from programs that have for many years been built around the Tour and events across France. This season he’s spending more time competing in Italy and has returned to the Giro for the first time since 2015. In a way he’s come full circle. Porte first burst onto the scene at the 2010 Giro where he, as a neo-pro, won the best young rider jersey (the maglia bianca) and marked a stint in the maglia rosa, finishing seventh overall behind winner Ivan Basso. Evans was fifth.
Porte’s campaign backing Carapaz has been enjoyable, and he’s often served as the last teammate on the road with the Olympic champion in the high mountains thousands of metres above sea level.
“Yeah, there’s stress and whatever goes with it, a grand tour, but compared to the Tour it’s chalk and cheese, and it’s been nice here,” Porte said.
“It’s nice to have a defined role. It’s nice to come in and have a guy like Richie Carapaz, who has put his hand up. He’s not at all worried about taking the stress of being the GC leader within the team and he’s delivered.
“He’s a good guy and it’s always nice to be able to dedicate yourself to a guy like him, who you like and respect.”
Porte has not intimated what life after cycling may look like for him.
Maybe because the grounded champion — who shares the same collection of time-honoured and prestigious stage race wins as Eddy Merckx, the long-retired legend who is still cycling’s yard stick — isn’t riding into the sunset just yet.
A fresh Australian face, Jai Hindley, is dangerously close to stealing the maglia rosa from Carapaz’s shoulders and, like Porte has before, making history. Hindley started stage 18 on Thursday second on general classification and only three seconds adrift of the race leader.
“But at the same time, you still need to perform, and I think we’ve been thereabouts,” Porte continued.
Ineos Grenadiers, the most celebrated grand tour racing team of the last decade, have a well-documented playbook when it comes to three-week competitions. Often their best offence is defence and that was the plan Porte outlined entering the final term of the Giro: Defence, albeit with an asterisk.
The British-registered squad has been focused on changing it up the last couple of seasons, with the emergence of Pogacar and increased prominence of rival teams disrupting the status quo. And that suits Carapaz.
“The thing with Richie is he’s not afraid to attack, so it’s hard to pick where he’s going to do that, and sometimes we don’t know when he’s going to attack either!” Porte said.
“It is nice to keep people guessing.
“People are quick to say, you know, we ride like Sky did, which of course is how you’re going to ride when you’ve got the pink jersey and [are] trying to defend it, but Richard is like that X-factor. He doesn’t mind throwing a long bomb attack out.”
Hindley (Bora-hansgrohe) is a genuine chance to become the first Australian to win the Giro, which he believes will come down to seconds, and by all appearances has the legs and the ambition to do it. As he told me on Monday, he’s not at the Giro “to put socks on centipedes”.
The 26-year-old won stage 9 to Blockhaus and earlier this week shortened his deficit to Carapaz when he outsprinted the Ecuadorian for bonus points on the finish line of stage 16.
Porte didn’t comment about Hindley on the rest day but was confident in the strength of his own team that has won the past two editions of the race.
“My goal is to be up there and support Richie as long as I can,” he said.
“I think that’s the goal for everybody. Everybody has been doing that fantastically well. Having a young guy like Ben Tulett, who is only 20, he was up there [on stage 15 to Cogne] when there were 20 guys left in the bike race, it was quite incredible. I think everybody has got to do their bit, and we will.”