Reading Sean Yates

sean-yates-it-s-all-about-the-bikeI bought Sean Yates’ biography, It’s All About The Bike, because I’d always been a fan of the rider, in his heyday the toughest domestique in the peloton. I like the fact that in one of his final Tours de France he got to wear the yellow jersey, if only for a day.

Yates says he didn’t intend to write a book, but realised after leaving Sky in the wake of the Armstrong findings, where he’d been a Directeur Sportive, that he needed to tell his story.

A lot of the background here, and much of his cycling career, will be well-known to anyone who has followed Britain’s “foreign legion” since the 1980s, or read William Fotheringham’s book on the subject. His upbringing in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, a delinquent at school (even at the Steiner School he was sent to), a natural at cycling, with outstanding time trial results that saw him first represent Britain in the 1980 Olympics and then gain a place at the ACBB club, the leading French “nursery” team, just as the so-called “Anglophone invasion” of professional cycling was getting started.

And then on to Peugeot, Fagor, and 7-11/Motorola for a long professional career. Somewhere along the way he observes that he had no coaching: not quite true, since he also recalls that at ACBB the trainer Mickey Wiegand told Yates, “If you don’t take the chain off that big ring, I will take the big ring off your bike.”

“Hitting myself in the face”

But his preparation for the World Pursuit Championships in 1982 involved training at full gas until the day before the event, with the result that he under-performed at the event: “By the time the Worlds arrived I might as well have been hitting myself in the face with a shovel.” Even sportive riders know about the importance of pre-event recovery and ‘tapering’ these days.

He’s also wry about how little he knew about tactics at the start of his professional career.

I’d be riding along with an experienced little guy on my left, sheltered from the wind by my size. We’d swing round a bend and the wind would be coming from the other side and, as if by magic, he’d be tucked in on my right, sheltered again.

The end of Yates’ career at Motorola coincided with the start of Lance Armstrong’s: the brash young pre-cancer one-day rider, rather than the ruthless drug assisted Tour winner. Yates benefited personally. The two men were close and Yates’ plans to retire were deferred a couple of seasons with lucrative contract extensions so he could help the young American develop as a rider. Armstrong has been a guest in Yates’ house in Sussex.

Perhaps as a result he’s blind here to the corruption that Armstrong wrought later. And when Yates’ ex-wife Pippa says of Lance, “I don’t hear Lance accusing any of those around him in the glory years of any fault or blame for their roles in the saga,” (p275) one can only think that she’s being blind to the way he smeared and bullied people like Betsy and Frankie Andreu and Emma O’Riley along the way.

Setting the strategy

The parts of the book that are most interesting, and most new, are those that cover his more recent career as a Directeur Sportive, as assistant DS at Linda McCartney and CSC, as head DS at Sky. In cycling, directeurs sportives are influential figures, akin to football managers. They set the strategy for a stage (and for a whole race), they call tactics as a race unfolds, and they’ll also motivate the riders, as well as handing out drinks as they go.

Yates was the architect of Bradley Wiggins’ 2012 Tour de France triumph, and he’s justifiably proud of his 2012 record, in the Tour itself and in the races leading up to it. As Brian Smith reminds us elsewhere in the book, Yates is the only British DS to win a Grand Tour. Actually, Yates has won three: with Paolo Salvodelli, against the odds, in Italy’s Giro, with Contador, also in the Giro, as well as the 2012 Tour de France with Bradley Wiggins.

Two stories from that stand out for me. One, the newsworthy account of the behind-the-scenes row in the Sky camp after Froome had attacked Wiggins (or not) on the climb to La Toussure. Wiggins was in the race leader’s yellow jersey; Froome was riding to support him. After the stage, Yates went to Wiggins’ room, and Wiggins, who’s always been mercurial to the point of fragility, told him,

“Well, I might as well go home now.”

Yates could see team boss David Brailsford outside, along with head coach Shane Sutton and Rod Ellingworth, and he texted Brailsford to come urgently to Wiggins’ room. Brailsford arrived in short order to talk Wiggins back up.

“Breathing out of your arse”

The other story is more tactical, about why you instruct a team to ride fast on the front of the race towards the end of a stage:

People often think that setting a high pace is all about dissuading other teams from attacking, but there’s much more to it than that. When you’re hanging on for grim death to the wheel in front, 30th place in a line of eighty, there’s no way you can affect the race. You can’t move up to 29th, let alone first. You pray that the rider in 15th or 20th doesn’t blow up and lose the wheel in front … you’re breathing out of your arse just to hang on to the wheel in front … you’ve done that, but you’ve all been dropped. (p14-15)

When Yates had some physiology tests done when he turned professional he was told that his numbers were as good as those of Eddie Merckx, who dominated professional cycling for a decade in a way not seen before or since. But top class sport is about desire as well as physique, and somewhere he didn’t want it enough, as he acknowledges of his Sky career:

I should explain that I’m just not passionate about cycling and success the way that Dave [Brailsford] and Shane Sutton are. … For me it’s always been a job. … That didn’t mean I didn’t give 100 percent. I loved my job, but I was coming from a different point of view to them.

Yates has been well-served here by his co-writer John Deering (who also wrote the cycling classic Team On The Run, about the Linda McCartney team where Yates was Directeur Sportive). Somewhere between them Yates and Deering go back and talk to people who’ve known Yates along the way, which maybe gives the book a more reflective quality than you get in many sporting biographies.

More than a bit driven

Although he’s now back in the world of professional cycling as an assistant DS (he was with Saxo Tinkoff in the 2015 Tour) I hadn’t realised how ill he had been when he stepped down at Sky. Two strokes (one minor); an arrythmia of the heart; a heart condition that could have killed him on a cycling holiday. He now has a pace-maker fitted. Of course, he left in a cloud of rumours that he might have been a victim of Sky’s post-Armstrong clearout of those who acknowledged doping. He never has, and this is frankly, a gap in the book, especially since he mentions the 1989 Tour of Belgium, which he won, where he initially tested positive but was subsequently cleared.

He comes across as more than a bit driven (500 push-ups a day, pretty much without fail), but completely in love with cycling. It is hard to think of other ex-pros who keep on racing in amateur events, years after they have retired, or keep setting records. And it’s also hard to think of another DS who would take the opportunity of a 250km transfer during the Giro d’Italia to cycle it rather than drive it.

Or, come to that, of a DS who, a year after he’s steered a team to their first Grand Tour triumph, returns to watch the Tour as a cyclo-tourist with his teenage sons. It’s just about the bike.


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