Obituary: Nicolas Portal, 1979 – 2020

A professional racer for nine seasons, Nicolas Portal won the Tour de France six times as a team director

Six times a winner of the Tour de France with three different riders, Team Ineos race manager Nicolas Portal died on Tuesday morning as the result of a heart attack. The Frenchman was 40.

Portal was born in Auch, in the Gers department in south-west France, where his father was a quarry manager and his mother a medical secretary. He first showed his talent for bike racing as a mountain biker, following in the footsteps of his racing heroes, Ned Overend, John Tomac and Rune Høydahl. In 2001, he was recommended to Vincent Lavenu, manager of the Ag2r Prévoyance road team, by a mutual friend. “He convinced me to try him out as a stagiaire, and I remember that he did some races with us in Italy and we were astonished with his qualities,” Lavenu told L’Équipe.

>> Subscribe to Cycling Weekly this Autumn and save 35%. Enjoy the luxury of home delivery and never miss an issue <<

Portal spent four seasons with the French team, taking his only professional victory in their colours during the 2004 Dauphiné Libéré at Aubenas. He struggled to warm to the new discipline initially, finding it boring to spend three or four hours in the saddle when little was happening after the two-hour, flat-out intensity of off-road competition. But he began to understand the tactical niceties of road racing, drawing on the knowledge of seasoned professionals at Ag2r, particularly Laurent Brochard and Jaan Kirsipuu.

>>> ‘Approachable, engaging, and insightful’: Remembering Nicolas Portal

In 2006, he joining the French-sponsored, Spanish-run Caisse d’Épargne squad. A good climber and very dependable domestique, he grew into a new role as a road captain, his calmness under pressure and uncanny ability to read a race playing a significant role in Oscar Pereiro’s Tour de France win that season.

In 2009, he was diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia, which led to a six-month hiatus from racing. He returned to the peloton the following season in different colours, those of Britain’s new Sky team, riding alongside future Tour winners Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas during that campaign.

Nicolas Portal (Getty)

Towards the end of it, Sky team manager Dave Brailsford offered Portal the chance to become a directeur sportif. Still far from fluent in English, he initially assumed Brailsford was joking. But the Sky boss and other staff on the team had noticed Portal’s ability to communicate and to keep his cool in the most testing of situations. “He’s got a great way of handling people. He’s very good at relationships, very personable and obviously he knew racing, and it just seemed that he’d got the ingredients to be able to develop with us. He’s calm, doesn’t panic, he’s not a screamer and shouter, and that aspect of him has grown over the last few years,” Brailsford said in 2017.

“I thought about it for three weeks. Initially I was sceptical, but as I thought more about what Dave had said I decided, ‘Actually it would be cool to do something different.’ In the end I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ I felt I could help the group and would be able to contribute to the team’s success.”

Just as he had done during his racing career, Portal looked and listened to the more experienced members of the management staff, particularly lead DS Sean Yates. He first acted as Sky’s lead team director at a Grand Tour during the 2012 Vuelta a España, where the fast-emerging Froome finished fourth. When Yates left Sky at the end of that season, Portal was promoted to replace him.

Nico Portal celebrates with Chris Froome after victory at the 2017 Tour de France (Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

The partnership with Froome paid instant dividends. With Portal guiding him, the Briton won in Oman, the Criterium International, the Tour of Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné during the first half of that season and lined up for the Tour as the favourite to succeed his Sky team-mate Wiggins as the champion. Froome achieved exactly that, winning three stages, including the prestigious summit finish on Mont Ventoux. But Portal’s influence was particularly apparent on the second day in the Pyrenees, when Froome lost all of his team-mates but kept his hands on the yellow jersey thanks his team director’s coolness and tactical insight.

The partnership thrived over subsequent seasons, Froome winning the Tour in 2015, 2016 and 2017, the Vuelta a España in 2017 and the Giro d’Italia in 2018. That latter season he guided Geraint Thomas to his first Tour crown and was also behind the wheel of what had become the Ineos team car when Egan Bernal became the first Colombian yellow jersey in 2019, making Portal the first team director to win the Tour with three different riders since Cyrille Guimard in 1983.

He leaves his wife, Magalie, and his two children, Lenny and Aïnhoa.