May 27, 2010 by Irish Peloton
White Jersey is the next Porte of call
I read an article recently on the excellent BackPageFootball.com on how pressure from fans and media can become overwhelming for a young athlete and can eventually ruin their career. Sebastian Deisler was a German footballer who was pegged as ‘the next Franz Beckenbauer’. He had to live and play with the tag of being the saviour of German football from a very young age. Despite this pressure and a string of injuries he made it from Borussia Monchengladbach via Hertha Berlin all the way to Bayern Munich. However, at Bayern the injuries persisted and he never quite lived up to his promise. He was earmarked to lead Germany to World Cup glory on home soil in 2006 but he missed the tournament, again through injury. He struggled to cope with the immense pressure exerted on him and was eventually diagnosed with depression. He retired from football completely in 2007 saying:
In the end I was empty. I was old and I was tired. I went as far as my legs could carry me, and I could not go any further.
He was 27 years old.
As cycling fans, it is natural to be on the look out for ‘the next Lance Armstrong’ or ‘the next Mario Cipollini’, but as was the case with Deisler, these labels and pressures can be taken too far. Tom Danielson was labelled ‘the next Lance Armstrong’ from a young age and was even drafted into Armstrong’s team just as the Texan was winding down his own career in 2005. He won the Tour de Georgia that year which rubber stamped his label as ‘the next Lance Armstrong’ but he has never lived up to that promise and has consistently been dogged by illness and injury. He has never come close to living up to this label but he’s had a good career. Surely he should be lauded for what he has achieved rather than criticised for what he hasn’t? Along with the Tour de Georgia victory, he has won the Tour de Langkawi, the Osterreich Rundfahrt, the Tour of Austria, a stage of the Vuelta a Espana as well as being a multiple top 10 finisher in the Spanish Grand Tour.
Danielson has had a solid career despite missing large chunks of it through various maladies. But despite this, his career is seen by some as a failure. It’s a failure when compared with the expectation he was burdened with, but not when examined on its own merits. Pro Cycling magazine are guilty of maintaining a long running column called ‘Are you the next Lance Armstrong?’. Riders featured over the years have been as diverse as Lars Boom, Jurgen van den Broeck, Benoit Vaugrenard, Lars Bak, Rigoberto Uran, Martijn Maaskant, Kevin Seeldrayers and Tom Peterson. The column is written fairly tongue in cheek but is surely not a help to a young rider who aims to embark on a career as a classics rider! Perhaps I’m overestimating the influence that a cycling publication can have on the mindset of an emerging rider?
What is not an overestimation however is the pressure that the French media heap on any French rider who emits a mere whiff of being capable of challenging for the Tour de France. It’s now 25 years since the French had a home winner of the Tour. Thus, when a Frenchman manages a decent performance in the Tour de France he is likely to be labelled the saviour of French cycling. Christophe Rinero and Benoit Salmon are prime examples of this. (To further illustrate, try doing an advanced search on Google of the cyclingnews.com site, type the search term “French hope”. When compared to any other nationality in the search term there are considerably more results for the French). I mention all of this because I fear for the future of Richie Porte.
The young Tasmanian has had a fantastic Giro where he’s the leader in the young rider’s classification and currently sits in third pace in the General Classement. He has almost seven minutes in hand over Robert Kiserlovski, the young rider closest to his White jersey and he has an almost eight minute buffer between his current third spot and falling out of the top 10. Spurred on by the thought of achieving both of these goals, Porte has been climbing admirably. He has finished in the top 20 of both the stage up Monte Zoncolan and the Plan de Corones mountain time trial, results not to be sniffed at. While there are a couple of very difficult stages remaining, if he keeps this up he will mostly likely end the Giro in the top 10 and the winner of the White Jersey as best young rider.
However, let us not forget that these achievements have been made possible by fortuitous circumstances, two in particular. Porte, along with dozens of other riders was afforded almost 13 minutes on the rainy Stage 11 to l’Aquila. This sort of breakaway occurs very rarely in a Grand Tour, or indeed in any stage race. The two most prominent examples of long dangerous successful breakaways that come to mind are Oscar Pereiro’s breakaway in 2006 and Claudio Chiapucci’s in 1990. Richie Porte and David Arroyo have benefitted hugely from the inability of Liquigas, Astana and BMC to co-ordinate a chase. If these teams had co-operated, Richie Porte would now simply be a good young rider who built on his Tour of Romandie time trial by taking 6th place in the first time trial of the Giro.
The second circumstance which has led to Porte’s current circumstances is the composition of his Saxo Bank team for this Giro. The team’s biggest hitters, Fabian Cancellara, Matti Breschel, Jens Voigt and the Schlecks are all not present. The team had no G.C. aspirations for the Giro. Before the race started the team had two goals, to set up Baden Cooke for the bunch sprints and to get a stage win through Chris Anker Sorensen. These two goals were concluded early on in the Giro for very different reasons. Chris Anker Sorensen won Stage 8, thereby fulfilling half of Saxo Bank’s goals for the race. The following day Baden Cooke abandoned the race. By the time the massive breakaway stole away on Stage 11, Saxo Bank had no more goals to fulfill for the Giro. This resulted in the remaining seven riders on the team being able to lend their full support to the escapades of Richie Porte for the remainder of the race.
This is Porte’s first appearance in a Grand Tour. In the past 10 years there have only been seven riders who have managed to finish in the top 10 in their first appearance in a Grand Tour, meaning it is quite an accomplishment. Most notably, these include Andy Schleck who finished 2nd in the 2007 Giro and Robert Gesink who finished 7th in his maiden Grand Tour at the Vuelta in 2008. Unusually, also on this list is Ezequiel Mosquera who didn’t ride in a Grand Tour until he was 31 when he finished 5th in the Vuelta. The remaining riders are Jose Angel Gomez Marchante (8th, Vuelta ’04), Jose Rujano (3rd, Giro ’05), David Blanco (10th, Vuelta ’04) and Jose Azevedo (5th, Giro ’01).
Richie Porte is 25 years old. This will be the last year that he is eligible for young rider competitions. Therefore he will not be able to contribute to his reputation by acquiring anymore White Jerseys. However, there will be pressure on him to build on his Giro d’Italia success. I just hope for his sake that he will not be subjected to over zealous pressure but will be taken for what he is, a young all-rounder who can excel in the time trial, rather than be taken for a Grand Tour hope who could eventually eclipse Cadel Evans by becoming the first Australian to win one of cycling’s three week races.