Not much knocks you for six these days, but the shock announcement tonight of the sudden death of Nicolas Portal at the age of just 40 from a suspected heart attack is one of them. Nicolas was the coolest cat in town, seemingly as fit as when he rode in the peloton for nearly a decade and without question the second most important man in the Team Sky/Team Ineos set-up behind Sir Dave Brailsford, the team principal.
Acutely intelligent, charismatic, he spoke three or four languages like a native, including English, and was probably the best and most respected Directeur Sportif on the World Tour. He was also endlessly affable, even in the heat of battle. He was the best of the best.
His presence and the respect in which he was held by the cycling world gave Sky/Ineos great kudos even in times of controversy. Portal was manifestly an honest straight-shooter and when some of the flak was flying around, the cycling world took a deal of comfort that he was invariably the man at the wheel of the team car calling the shots
Portal, who joined Sky as a rider in their inaugural year and switched to a Directeur Sportif role in 2011, would always shoot the breeze with the clamouring media and to listen to him talk you through the key moments of a stage was an education.
As a rider completed seven Grand Tours as a domestique and although, as a DS, he plotted and planned for Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal he always saw the bigger picture and lionised the likes of road captain Luke Rowe and other workers.
Being French there were, of course, Gallic shrugs, raised eyebrows and whistles of amazement and surprise as he took you through the race minute by minute. He masterminded many Grand Tour wins, but his finest moment was probably the 2018 Giro d’Italia for Froome and in particular his spectacular comeback on stage 19, a high-mountain epic from Venaria Reale to Bardonecchia. Froome was riding under the stress of injuries and the cloud of the salbutamol case – eventually dismissed as being without foundation – but he was getting stronger by the day and Portal plotted an old fashioned coup de grace
Sky, unusually, took the initiative, the entire team rode on the front from the off peeling-off as they exhausted themselves before launching Froome on a solo break 80km from home. It was audacious but clever. Unless those few left chasing worked perfectly in concert they would slow each other down, hamper each other, which is exactly what they did on a tricky run to the line
Froome started the day in fourth place, 3 minutes 22 second down on leader Adam Yates, he ended the day in the maglia rosa 40 seconds ahead of the outwitted Tom Dumoulin. The most modern of coaches had masterminded something straight from the 1920s or 30s. He will be greatly missed, by cycling generally, as well as Team Ineos.