Riding with Richie
Cycling is all about routine and I’m catching up with Richie Porte just ahead of the Tour de France to find out what it’s like to live a day in his shoes.
“Let’s meet at La Turbie at 9am” his message says. He is going to take me on one of his regular training rides in the hills. 10 days out from the start of le Tour. I have to pinch myself.
I key ‘La Turbie’ into my bike computer and find it’s 600m of elevation just to get to the meeting spot!
I sail past a green bike sign pointing to the town, but I decide to follow my own route. Halfway up and I find myself on a 10% gradient, barely wide enough for a single car. I start thinking that the other way may have been easier. However, almost immediately, I see Richie appear from a side street up ahead.
Pushing hard on the pedals I finally catch up. He laughs when he finds out the way I came. "Most of the locals have never ridden that nasty climb" he chuckles. Clearly, I am off to a good start.
Richie tells me about what he has in store. Our route for the day is going to take in two big climbs: the Col de Braus and the Col de la Madone.
"It’s a lovely ride mate” Richie assures me. From the look of the mountains on the horizon I don’t find it hard to believe.
En route to the Col de Braus, Richie points out the Col de la Madone. “We will ride that after lunch” he says, casually.
We stop for a photo. “This is exactly where I crashed in the 2015 Paris-Nice” he reminisces. Then, just around the next corner, he points out where Contador attacked.
The roads are so quiet. Apart from the odd rider passing in the opposite direction we have the place all to ourselves.
Richie knows these roads thoroughly and suggests I go on ahead. Apparently there is a great view of the switchbacks. He waits patiently below as I slog it up the road. As promised, it is spectacular.
I wave for him to ride up. On reaching me he asks if I’m hungry and I confess I snuck in an energy bar while he was climbing. “Just over the top of this climb we can have a coffee and focaccia in Menton”.
The conversation turns to food and I ask about his morning breakfast ritual. Does he ever rides on an empty stomach? “Nah, I usually have a smoothie” he replies.
Naturally I got the recipe to share with you, my dear readers.
The Richie Porte smoothie:
A dollop of natural yogurt
Plain oats (added later, so they are not completely blended).
Food, glorious food
While on the topic, I’m interested to know what he eats during a race. “Rice bars” he says. “I don’t really like gels and stuff like that - I’d rather real food”.
The conversation flows and I think I tell him as much about my story as he does about his. He comes across so relaxed on the bike it’s hard to imagine that the Tour is just 10 days away.
Naturally the topic of Tasmania comes up and we both conclude that it has some world-class rides.
Richie is a proud Taswegian. A medallion in the shape Tassie hangs from a chain around his neck. He talks about the beautiful produce, eating fresh berries by the handful, and his house in Launceston. He can’t believe I haven’t done the Scottsdale Loop, a personal favourite of his. Perhaps only second to today’s route. We make a plan to ride it together later in the year.
With the Tour dominating the conversation I ask about course recon. Do you get to ride the stages beforehand? “Yes, I have ridden most of the key stages” he replies, before confessing that the climbs always seem harder on the recon. “In the race you are fuelled up with five or more rice bars and ready to hit it”.
“On a long training ride you never eat that much, so you are often under-fuelled, making the climbs seem harder. In the race you are just eating constantly - it is really important.” I presumed that he would be winding down this close to the Grand Depart. However, the opposite was true. “I did a ride with over 5,200m climbing earlier this week” he tells me.
What stage are you most looking forward to? “Stage Five. The finish at La Planche des Belles Filles should be interesting”. I ask him if he thinks stage 5 is too early for the GC contenders to show their cards. He disagrees. “We could see some fireworks”.
What about the stage you are least looking forward to? “Stage 9. The descent from Mont du Chat to the finish. It’s very dangerous”. I remember driving this narrow road myself and the lack of barriers made me think the same thing.
Not long afterwards, we arrived in Menton for lunch. I finally get to sample the coffee and foccacia that are a staple of Richie’s diet.
There was little chance of us under-fuelling as we munch on focaccia after focaccia, laden with cheese and prosciutto.
Richie is onto a good thing with this place. No wonder he has made this cafe part of his daily ritual.
I hope this fuels me up, like a handful of rice bars, to set a good time up the Madone. Richie has nicknamed the Madone the “Mad One”, after someone mispronounced it.
The 13.6km Col de la Madone is about as mythical as climbs come. Lance Armstrong used it to tell if he was 'ready' for the Tour de France, setting his best time of 30min 47sec just before the 1999 edition. The location of the start line is a hotly debated topic, but Richie points out the bus stop that they used when he was riding for Team Sky. The current leaderboard has him at the top with a time of 29min 24sec. The next closest rival is Chris Froome, sitting 29 seconds behind.
Playing the photo card
It is safe to say I was expecting a full-on walloping as the gradient kicked up to 8%. Thankfully, Richie was taking it easy. Still, I had to work hard to keep tempo with him, as he just idled along.
After only a few kilometres I pull the photo card. “Hey, let’s stop for a shot”, I gasp. I take the opportunity to drink half a bidon and wipe the sweat from my eyes.
After many such ‘photo opportunities’ we reach the summit. I look at my time and I’m clearly not ready for the Tour de France.
Richie, on the other hand, has hardly broken a sweat and I can only imagine what it must be like to see him taking on the Mad One at full gas. If you visit when he’s in town there's a good chance you might catch a glimpse of red flashing past as he climbs the Madone yet again...
The descent back to La Turbie winds along the ridge top and I could see the road which we used earlier in the day, hundreds of metres below. My two bidons have mysteriously evaporated on the climb, so we pull up at a drinking fountain in the centre of town, just in time to see Nario Quintana flash past.
There was an exchange of glances and a polite wave. “He lives here as well?” I ask Richie, after I have picked my jaw up off the cobbles. “Yeah, but he’s never around” is the casual reply. As I fill my bottles Richie splashes water on his bike, giving it a quick clean.
A passing rider recognises him and stops for a chat. I use the opportunity to get a photo of us together. Straight to the pool room.
Just as I am about to say farewell and bonne chance for the Tour, Richie suggests we meet again tomorrow at the same cafe.
Just like that, my daily ride becomes part of the Richie Ritual.