Nicolas ‘Nico’ Portal is the youngest directeur sportif ever to lead a rider to victory in the Tour de France. That was back in 2013, when the 34-year-old Portal helped guide Chris Froome to his first win in a Grand Tour.
Since then, Portal and Froome have won another three Tours de France and added the 2017 Vuelta a Espana and the 2018 Giro d’Italia to their collective palmares. Apart from those evident highlights, there have been wins in the Criterium du Dauphine, the Tour de Romandie and the 2016 Herald Sun Tour…
The two men have, in a manner of speaking, ‘grown up’ together, each feeling their way, establishing their roles, developing levels of confidence and self-assurance that were absent in their early days, as team leader and sport director respectively.
Portal, who started life as a professional cross-country mountain biker before turning to the road, did a year as a rider at Sky in 2010 before being tapped up by Dave Brailsford that autumn and asked if he would consider a role as Sport Director.
“I had never thought about it,” recalls Portal, “and I really wasn’t sure I could do it. I actually phoned Sean Yates and asked him what I should do, whether he thought I could do the job and Sean helped me so much in 2011 and 2012.
“He was like Obi-Wan Kenobi, I was his apprentice Jedi!” laughs Portal, recalling the early days when he was second sport director to Yates’ lead, serving his apprenticeship.
“My English wasn’t great at the time,” continues Portal, “so in the team car we’d always speak English and on the radio too.”
When Yates left the team at the end of 2012, Brailsford called Portal to tell him he wanted him to take over and Portal paused, phoned Yates again discussed it, then accepted Brailsford’s offer. Yates had been closer to ‘old school’ Wiggins than public schoolboy Froome, while Brailsford had come to the conclusion that Froome was the future and that the pairing of ‘Nico and Froomey’ was worth developing.
Those early seasons were, if not a baptism of fire, then certainly saw Portal on a steep learning curve. He was learning the job and so was Froome, each leading the team in their own domain, establishing credibility and forging a useful bond. There’s only a difference of six years between the two men.
“I think Nico is much more about emotion and feeling than, say, Tim (Kerrison) is when it comes to the riders and Chris in particular,” explained one Team Sky insider of long standing.
“Tim is close to Chris too, but I’d say they have a different relationship, Nico is more about a sort of ‘arm around the shoulder’ and picking up on that need with the riders like Chris – or Richie (Porte) when he was with the team.”
The psychological dynamic that flows between Portal, Froome, Kerrison and Brailsford is a complex one, but Portal’s emotional empathy, his closeness to the riders and his understanding of what is actually is to be a professional rider is a crucial element in the overall balance of the team.
Portal is the directeur sportif doing the rounds of rider’s rooms at night, sounding them out, having a chat, gauging morale, geeing them up.
“There are times when there is friction,” admitted Fran Millar, director of business operations at Team Sky and a key presence at the heart of the team since the beginning. “It’s not like the Waltons family, you can’t always have harmony, how can you? Three or four weeks in the Tour de France living in each other’s pockets means you can’t ever have that, but each of them (Froome, Portal, Kerrison and Brailsford) respects what the other brings. I mean, Dave doesn’t go in the team car much any more!” chuckled Millar.
Portal spends a lot of time in team cars – and its not just during races. Picking up to where his mentor Yates left off, Portal has taken course reconnaissance to a new level of detail, determined, so it seems, to make sure as little as possible is left to chance. The dossier that Portal assembles for the Tour is a formidable tome, developing an analysis of each stage in terms of its likely impact on the GC, its difficulty in terms of climbing meters and gradients, likely weather and wind direction, probable tactical considerations and all this – mark you – already to be discussed in January, months before the race.
“I know everyone looks at Tour stages these days,” admits Portal, “but how much detail? Like a Tour mountain time trial. It’s flat at the start they say. Is it? Is it false flat? Slightly downhill? Which way does the wind generally blow? Does the wind change from morning to afternoon? Will it be worth changing bikes from a TT bike to light climbing bike? Can you encourage your rider to push harder on the steep sections because it eases back or will he pay by going too hard too soon? There are so many factors to consider.”
Given the manner in which Portal does his background preparation, the ‘buy-in’ from riders is assured and his contact with Froome, in particular, even during the off season, is almost daily, even if its only via text.
The two match each other in their single-mindedness. Portal’s determination to be the best he can be, allied to Froome’s strength of will and supernatural application has produced a great pairing.
“Sometimes Froomey will surprise me. I mean, there are times in off season when he’ll send me a text saying he’s been thinking about a stage on the Tour route, that he’s got some ideas or something, a couple of days after the Tour route has been announced. He never stops,” observes Portal.
Froome’s obsession only seems to inspire Portal to match him, bringing the same determination to the task in hand. Those keen to uncover the ‘secrets’ behind the successes of Froome and Team Sky shouldn’t overlook the influence of the mild-mannered multi-lingual ex-pro Nico Portal.