Retirement can be a touchy subject for professional cyclists, many of whom have been on two wheels their entire working lives and know nothing to little outside of it.
It is perhaps why many never really leave the WorldTour but rather reinvent themselves as sports directors, managers, media pundits and so forth when they hang up the cleats.
Some are forced out through lack of a contract during the transfer season, which operates like a game of musical chairs of which there is never enough. The most celebrated can find it hard to let go of a self-orientated state of mind and an existence where people do laundry for you, cook for you, clean up after you and adulate daily.
There’s also the element of friendship that comes with sharing a bus and accommodation with teammates for 200-plus days a year, spending more time with those on your squad than loved ones. Your existence can change at once.
Richie Porte’s working life has been thus, cycling, but his approach to imminent retirement when the Tour of Britain concludes on Sunday is different.
“I have friends who didn’t retire on their own terms, and, you know, you can tell it’s still a bit of a raw nerve for some of them. And then there’s guys who did retire on their own terms and they’re all quite happy,” Porte told Rouleur on the eve of the race. “I hope that is how it is for me.”
The highly decorated Australian when he re-joined Ineos Grenadiers on a two-year deal in 2021 stated he’d finish up when that contract expired.
In the twilight of his wealthy career, Porte has celebrated some of his most defining achievements and victories. In 2020 with Trek-Segafredo he became only the second Australian to finish on the podium at the Tour de France, placing third behind generational talent Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma). And in 2021, he added the Criterium du Dauphine to a collection of week-long stage race victories that only one other, being cycling messiah Eddy Merckx, can boast.
“I could keep riding if I wanted. I’m enjoying it. I’m really enjoying riding my bike,” Porte said. “It’s just the other parts; being away from the family and that, it’s just a bit shitty now.”
Porte met his wife Gemma, from Manchester, at Team Sky and the couple have two children, a son Luca, and a daughter Eloise, who was born during the 2020 Tour. Illness has prevented the 37-year-old from racing as much as he intended this year, and he entered the Tour of Britain having not competed since the Giro d’Italia in May. The upside of that was Porte spent more time with his children, but it’s now harder being away from them.
“Especially the last months, I’ve really bonded with them,” he continued. “If I lay on the floor Luca will come and sit on me, and Eloise will jump on me. It wasn’t like that before the Giro, they just wanted mum. Now I’m off again and we’ll have to start again.”
Results at the Tour and the Dauphine, influenced by a more composed and confident approach to racing, haven’t tempted Porte to reconsider retirement. He’s taken to domestic life in which his wife (and biggest supporter) keeps him accountable.
“We got into [Netflix hit] Stranger Things, and we watched three episodes. She [Gemma] said that’s fine, but you need to help me in the morning with the kids. And I didn’t,” he recalled of a day at home. “Then the one thing I tried to do was when I was leaving, I was trying to put the toast on for the kids and then I burnt the toast. She lost it. It’s funny now.”
Porte has gone about his swansong season quietly. The Tasmanian is synonymous with the Tour Down Under, a two-time title champion and near unbeatable on the queen stage to Willunga, but the traditional WorldTour season opener was replaced with a festival that attracted mainly local teams in January, due to Australia’s border restrictions.
Porte competed for a composite outfit before travelling back to Europe where he finished an admirable fourth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico behind Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious).
“Going into it [the season], everything was first-last kind of thing. It’s a shame I didn’t get to do the Tour Down Under, as a WorldTour event, that was a touch disappointing. It would have been really nice to have signed off from the Aussie summer doing a race that I’ve always enjoyed,” Porte said.
He was forced to withdraw from the Volta a Catalunya with the flu but finished seventh on return at the Tour of the Alps before starting the Giro d’Italia.
Porte in consultation with Ineos Grenadiers opted to compete at the Giro over the Tour de France despite his long-time affinity with La Grande Boucle, which after his third place, and another lap with Ineos Grenadiers in 2021, he was contented to leave.
Illness struck again at the Giro though and Porte withdrew on stage 19 with gastro.
“It’s one of those things when you have young children, just in the last two months, I’ve been properly sick three times, which is not normal for me. I take that as a bit of a sign that maybe it’s time to give the body a bit of a rest as well. I think there’s a lot of illness around and when you’re pushing things like diet and training hard, you’re more susceptible to picking it up,” Porte said.
“I was supposed to race a lot more than I did but I kept getting sick and the team had to keep pulling me out of races. Hopefully here, Tour of Britain, my last go, I can stay healthy and actually finish the race.”
In Australia, Porte’s final act hasn’t received the public recognition befitting someone who has defined chapters of the nation’s cycling history. AFL and NRL footy finals, and the misdeeds of players already on break, are currently front- and back-page news.
He could have vied for selection and closed out his career at a home world championships, or even, as many compatriots have, raced the Tour Down Under, which returns properly next year, to a more deserved reception, and then called it quits.
“But Tour of Britain, my wife is British and so it’s almost as much of a home race as you can do for me,” Porte countered.
“I like this race, it’s cool, big crowds, they get behind the race and support it. British team also, so it’s actually a really nice way to finish.
“It’s just that the weather is probably not going to be [good].”
Porte’s family will be waiting for him in the Isle of Wight where he hopes to arrive, weather aside, with a smile on his face. The plan is to stay in Europe until the end of the year before moving to Porte’s native Tasmania in January. He doesn’t envisage himself working in the WorldTour again, rather helping young riders to get the same opportunities he has had.
“It's been my life really, my working life has been riding a bike, and it’s like Robbie McEwen said, getting paid money to ride a bike is an absolute privilege,” Porte added. “But I’m also very much ready for the next chapter.
“My level is still pretty good but it’s like that now, I really feel like it’s time to have a change, be a present figure with my wife and the kids more. You get more enjoyment out of the kids now than racing your bike.”