To ride with Sean Yates is a rare privilege. Unassuming, straight-up guy that he is, he does nothing to remind you that he is a piece of living heritage. He has the palmares to prove it: a stage winner in two grand tours, winners of stages in the Paris-Nice, Midi Libre and Dauphine Libere, a former yellow jersey in the Tour de France, fifth in one of the hardest editions of the hardest classic, the 1994 Paris-Roubaix, a national champion in the pursuit and on the road at 10, 25 and 50 miles, British record-holder (with the late Zak Carr) for the tandem 12-hour... the list goes on.
But that doesn’t get to what Sean Yates is about. He’s the guy who would sit on the front all day for his team, hour after hour, setting a tempo so fierce that no one would attack because they could not even imagine staying away. The ultimate lieutenant, riding shotgun for his team leader, keeping him out of trouble, out of the wind, at the front of the bunch. Never a climber but a peerless descender, and on flat or rolling roads, the domestique de luxe. Truly in his element in team time trials, commanding a respect bordering on awe and fear – and that from his own team-mates. The strong man of the bunch, a true rouleur. And true to type, what you get with Sean is no airs, no side, just unflappable integrity from the bedrock up.
To ride with Sean Yates is a rare privilege in another way. When we meet at the end of October, he hasn’t been on his bike for three months. Eleven years after he retired as a pro, Yates is having to face finally hanging up his wheels once and for all. This for a man who, as directeur sportif with the Discovery Channel team on the Tour de France, would rise before six every morning to go ride his bike for two hours, be showered and changed by 8am to join the squad for breakfast for another manic day of driving behind the peloton, handing up bidons, motivating riders, dealing with the hundred daily crises of a Tour stage. After a recurrence of a heart condition, atrial fibrillation, which, as with Tony Blair, required cardioversion – a medical procedure that involves stopping the heart and resetting it – Sean has been advised by his doctor to quit not only competition, but cycling altogether.
Despite that, after a lay-off, he is back on his bike again. Not only for Rouleur’s benefit, but because he has a plan. He intends to get in shape for one more race: the Southborough and District Wheelers’ New Year’s Day 10, a time trial he first won 30 years ago, at the age of 17. He wants to win it one more time, even though pushing himself that hard again is not without risk. And if he came through that fine and won it, would it really be his swan song and farewell to competitive bike racing? It’s not a question I even want to ask. I know the answer.
That’s the contradiction with Sean Yates. He is the easy-going, affable Sussex lad who takes life as it comes, doesn’t plan ahead much, is not ambitious for himself as long as he can provide for his family, has a rueful, self-deprecating sense of humour about the end of his marriage, is really happy cutting hedges with the radio on and a woolly hat pulled down over his ears, isn’t scared of what might or might not happen, and accepts what comes.
But he is also the most fierce competitor you will find, always hungry to win, thriving on it, living for it, working out how he can gain the edge, willing to turn himself inside out, pushing himself beyond mortal limits.
“I enjoy riding. I like the competition. I like the build-up,” he says, over a pub lunch at Coleman’s Hatch, a mile out of Forest Row, East Sussex, where he has spent most of his life when not on the road. He’s about to move to a new house, a few clicks down the road in Uckfield. “When I started riding, I never realised I’d keep riding – I never really think much about what’s coming up. Initially, [after I retired] I was going to pack up bike-riding and take up sailing. I bought a brand new boat and started sailing on Forest Row reservoir with my brother. But for some reason, I kept on riding. I had a few sponsors and made a bit of money out of it, so I got back into that. So I had to sell the boat and I used to train on the home trainer, but it’s the thought of the competition that motivates me: the thought that I can win and how to do it right so I can win. Training, planning, goals.
“I like playing football too, and I like to be nervous. If I go out on my motorbike and go round Brands Hatch, I never like to be overtaken: I just like to be first, basically, even if it’s playing cards. When we used to be down in the south of France, with my ex-wife, I used to cheat at bloody cards to win. She used to say, ‘Everything with you is a competition, even if it’s who can shout the loudest.’ I guess it is. I’m very competitive, bordering on obsessional.”
These days, he allows himself a glass of wine with his meal after a ride. But there can’t be many indulgences in the Yates life. Before we get to the pub, he changes from his cycling gear out of the back of his ageing white Land Rover – as he’s done for time trials on innumerable chilly mornings in out of the way places identified by the testers’ numerological code, the H10/1, the E1/25b or the G25/93. Even though he hasn’t been riding these past months, his physique could be cut from stone; there’s nothing spare on it. This is a body so absolutely adapted to the bike that it almost has something of the cartoon quality of Champion’s in the film Belleville Rendezvous. It is as if, in all those years in the saddle, the wind had gradually swept and stripped away everything surplus, leaving just this honed essence of cyclist.
You see it, too, when he rides. We take it fairly easy on our circuit of the Ashdown Forest, but when we hit a flat stretch, he’s in that position that is so instantly recognisable as Yatesy. The former thatch of yellow-blond hair may have paled to a silvery straw colour over the years, but the rest is the same. Arms straight out on the drops, shoulders low and body flat with back humped, yet head high on outstretched neck, jaw set and aquiline nose cutting the breeze, knees turned in neatly, legs rising and falling with strong, smooth rhythm: the whole ensemble economical yet powerful, with something feline and predatory about its movement. When you ride in Yates’ slipstream, you know that you have joined a very elite group of cyclists who have seen him at work – and suffered on his wheel, team-mates and rivals alike. Work, hurt, recover, work, hurt, recover: that is the mantra that has ruled Yates’ world, ever since his teens.
“Before the team time trials,” he says later, over lunch, “the guys would always be saying, ‘You’re going to kill us tomorrow, aren’t you?’ Every time they said that, it just made me more determined. They were shooting themselves in the foot because I’d be thinking, ‘I am going to bloody kill you.’ That was my terrain. We never won a team time trial in the Tour, when I was easily capable of being in every team time trial-winning team on the Tour in the last five years, certainly, of my career. The closest we got was in 1994, when we finished six seconds behind the MG-Technogym team and we were pulling it back.
“The team time trial is just the epitome of suffering – or dishing out the pain. When you’re the strongest, you go stronger still. But there’s a fine line between being the strongest and putting yourself in the hurt box. Even if you are the strongest, if you do too much, when you’ve got that calibre of rider with you, you do one turn too hard, the next three turns you pay for it.”
Time trialling was where Sean started in cycling. Racing against the clock has always been central to his repertoire as a rider. One record he holds, from 1988, that will never now be beaten is for the fastest time trial stage in Tour history on a standard road bike.
“I knew I had good form, and I knew that area because I’d lived there with Paul Sherwen,” he recalls. “And I was just on song that day. I’d come out of Midi Libre, where I’d won one stage, should have won two. I’d won a stage of Paris-Nice, had the leader’s jersey, done well in Paris-Roubaix. So I was up for it. Once you get going, you feel your legs are good, then you just push and push. It was one of those days when I could keep pushing. It was about 50km, and I averaged 49km – that’s the fastest-ever time trial in the Tour in a conventional position. There was a tailwind. I did have more of a tailwind than the later starters, but I was going bloody well that year.”
That is very typical of the man: even in the retelling, nearly 20 years after the event, he wouldn’t claim the record without mentioning the wind assistance. So let me say it for him: the best man won. And that was one of the things that always appealed to him about racing against the clock, the purity of the event – it’s simply about whoever is strongest on the day. “Time trialling was the easy entry into bike racing, and that’s what I started doing and I had success straight away. That was just brute force, which was my speciality.”
The first races he won, in fact, were not under the auspices of the RTTC and had smaller fields: his young brother, Christian, and a couple of local mates. “We were always out on our bikes, and always racing each other, just on any old bikes we could get hold of. We’d have sprints down the road. I’d say, “I’ll give you two pence if...” but I would always win. Then we’d even go on long rides down to the coast. I was 15, and my brother would have been 12, and he’d have one of those old sit-up-and-begs with steel-rod brakes, and we used to ride down to Cuckmere Haven, between Beachy Head and Newhaven.”
That set the pattern, once he’d started competing and realised he had talent. “We didn’t have coaches in those days. Times have changed, but 30 years ago, you’d just go out and ride. I used to always use 52x17 all the time, uphill, downhill, on the flat, you name it. I only used one gear.”
Crude as it was by modern standards, the method produced instant results. Like many great roadmen, Yates’ career was built on the combination of a relentless work ethic and an iron constitution. As he says, he had the sort of physiology that could absorb huge training loads and not break down: “The first five-hour ride I went on, I just wore trainers. I went with Ray Paling, a strong local rider who used to ride for the Fire Brigade, and Dave Carter, who had been national junior champion. We used to go on these long rides, in 1980. Five hours in trainers down to Hastings and back, you know, is quite hardcore. That set the benchmark. I’ve always been on for the old-school type training, which is just going and hammering it for as long as you can, basically, until you die. And then the body recuperates, or at least mine does, most times.”
Yates’ father played a crucial role in Sean’s incredibly rapid rise up the ranks – from sheer novice in plimsolls to riding the pursuit at the Moscow Olympics in 1980 within the space of three years. “My dad had been into cycling, never raced, but he used to have a nice bike. For some reason, he started buying Cycling [Weekly], and on the front of the first one he bought was Alf Engers [the great 25-mile time trial champion, who in 1978 became the first British tester to break the 50-minute barrier], side-on in full colour, with that orange bike all drilled out – that was on my bedroom wall for ages.”
His dad did a “bit of everything”, mainly selling insurance and investment advice, but soon devoted himself to the cause of his son’s career. “He wanted to give me the best. Maybe he was reliving his youth by doing everything for me, taking me everywhere. I had the latest stuff instantly. I was one of the first guys to have an internal brake system, the first guy to use clipless pedals, the first to have skinsuits, everything. He would spend hours and hours [preparing the bikes]... I remember one time he went down into the cellar to stick tubs on for when I went to the Olympics when it was still light outside – and when he came back out it was light again [i.e. the next day].”
Sean knew that the next step was to go abroad. So, like so many other talented riders of his generation, he caught a train to Paris to ride for ACBB, a recognised “feeder” club for pro teams. Where others (such as Paul Kimmage) have described their emigration as a testing, even alienating experience, Sean seems to have taken it all in his stride and rapidly graduated into the pro ranks.
“ACBB had a contact with Peugeot: they fed Robert Millar, Graham Jones, Paul Sherwen, Phil Anderson, Stephen Roche, me, then Allan Peiper, then Dag Otto Lauritzen was the end of the chain. Initially, I roomed with Robert at training camp down in the south of France. And then when Allan Peiper came along, I roomed with him always. Robert was Robert; I didn’t take much notice of him. I lived with John Herety [now manager of the RaphaCondor Recycling.co.uk team], who was with me in ACBB and we turned pro together. I lived with him for three years. It was good fun.”
Sean had a few dicey moments with Peugeot when it looked as though they might let him go. But he stayed five seasons, until moving to the Spanish team Fagor in 1986 for a couple of years, and then on to the American squads, first 7-Eleven and then Motorola, for whom he rode for the final six years of his 15-year career. Despite his more-than-respectable record, he believes he could have won more if he’d had the kind of coaching, training and preparation that riders such as Bradley Wiggins receive now.
“Of course, it’s easy with hindsight to say this, that and the other, and that was the course my life took. I don’t think Bradley’s ever going to come 5th in the Paris-Roubaix; he’s found his niche and he’s doing all right for himself. He has to use his strengths and capitalise on that. Whereas I was bumbling along, really, finding my way as it came.”
But any regrets are tinged with realism. He rode with enough world-class cyclists to know that he had neither the temperament nor, ultimately, the talent to be a team leader – someone of whom it was expected to win day after day. He didn’t want that pressure. As his career developed, he settled to the task for which he seemed best suited: the super-domestique.
“Yeah, I was happy with that,” he says. “I knew I could be with the best on certain days, but I knew I couldn’t do it every day, or every other day. So I realised that if I did my job properly, I’d always have a job. If I did it well, I’d always get good pay. If I helped guys like Lance, they’d always look after me – like bringing me to Discovery later on, and that was a payback.
"The principle was that I would always ride until I dropped, and I took it upon myself that if we had a race leader in the Tour of Ireland or the Tour of Britain, or whatever, no one would be getting away that day, basically. Even if I died trying to stop it. So I’d just ride on the front, and I had the physical attributes to be able to do that, so I’d rise to the challenge.”
Nearing the end of our morning ride, we turn the tight corner from Friars Gate, before the long drag up to the top of the Ashdown Forest, he recalls the day he rode up this same stretch of road in 1994 – the year when, a few days later in France, Yates got in a break that put him in yellow for one glorious stage. “I’d been around a few years,” he says. “I’d ridden my fair share on the front. Everyone was happy that I had the yellow jersey, it was like a nice present: a gold watch for my career.”
That day, when the Tour came to Britain for the first time in 20 years, Sean jumped away at the foot of the climb and rode up it in the big ring (how else?). The peloton knew not to follow him. He didn’t even feel the gradient in his legs. His then-wife, Pippa, was at the finish in Brighton, but his parents were waiting at the car park in Five Hundred Acre wood, about halfway up. His dad had a pint glass filled with champagne. It was a golden moment. The way he lights up, as he talks about it, it still is.
The day he is perhaps most proud of, besides that and the day in yellow, was his fifth in the Paris-Roubaix earlier that year. Recent editions of the race have seen warm temperatures and sunny days; apart from the dust, it has almost been possible for fans to forget why the race is known as the Hell of the North. The 1994 race had proper Belgian winter weather. Sean’s account needs no commentary.
“I woke up and it was snowing. I had good form that year. I’d been doing eight-hour rides at the training camp in Tuscany. We’d do six-hour rides and I’d go and do another two. I’d spent the winter in Belgium. The year before I’d been 8th. I was staying with Dag Otto Lauritzen and I’d go out and do these six-hour rides in the pissing rain. I used to wear a wetsuit – waterproof tights. The wind was so fucking strong, I got blown off my bike at one point. Then in January, we had a training camp on Lanzarote. There was me, Dag Otto, Max Sciandri, Davide Rebellin, Flavio Vanzella, Bjarne Riis, Rolf Sorenson and that was the training group. Then back for a week and then off to training camp in Tuscany.
“So that day, I knew I was good; I knew I was up for it. I started off, and I had this Patagonia fleece under my jersey. It did actually warm up a little bit later. I remember, on the second or third sector, I was in about 20th place and the guys are going off all over the shop. I had to chase and chase, but I got back on. But then I thought, ‘I can’t afford to do that again.’
“The big battle was Johan Museeuw and Andrei Tchmil. As we went through the feed zone, I managed to get my jersey off and take this fleece off, because it had warmed up. When we went through the Arenberg Forest, my brakes were clogging up. You’d be squirting down with your bidon, you know, because the clearance wasn’t enough.
“So then it had thinned right out, and Tchmil went away at the second feed. And then Museeuw tried to bridge across, do you remember? He got to within 25 metres and he couldn’t make it. We came to about 60km to go, and the shit hit the fan. [Gilbert] Duclos-Lassalle and [Franco] Ballerini went up the road, and then we came to this sector and this motorbike cameraman crashed. There was just chaos, and I thought, ‘This is it. I’ve just got to go as hard as I can for the next 45km.’ So me and Fabio Baldato, we just fucking went. Ballerini and Duclos-Lassalle both punctured in that section. We went past them.
“So, in front there was Tchmil, then there was Museeuw, then there was another guy from Gewiss in between, I think, then there was me and Baldato, riding two-up as hard as we could. I was puking up on the bike. And we came to the last sector and we caught Museeuw and the other guy, and came onto the Carrefour de l’Arbre, the last sector. There, I dropped the others, so I was second on the road – with the crowd and just going for it, that was the ultimate experience to be second on the road in the Paris-Roubaix, in shit weather, covered in shit.
“Tchmil was two minutes up the road. He was unstoppable that day. I got caught at the end of the sector, and then Ballerini and Duclos-Lassalle came back and [Olaf] Ludwig. Museeuw lost nine minutes from there to the finish, which was about 15km; he just blew.
“When you come out of that last sector, there’s this long drag and I knew Ballerini was going to attack, but I just did not have the legs. He attacked and Baldato went with him, and beat him in the sprint. So then there was a sprint for fourth and Ludwig won that, and I was second.
“That was an epic day. It was hard, but when you’re feeling good, it’s a different type of pain. I was there with the hitters, you know; that was a serious bloody group.”
It was his finest hour, perhaps, in what was certainly his best year as a pro. He rode to 11th place in the following year’s Paris-Roubaix, and finished once more, in 45th, in 1996 – the year he retired. Not that he stopped racing. As an amateur, he went on to set personal bests at all the major time trial distances, was always thereabouts and, in fact, took the 50-mile championship in 1997. At the same time, through his experience from 1998 of running the Linda McCartney team (which became the first UK-based squad to compete in the Giro d’Italia in 2000 – and win a stage), he has managed to carve out a niche for himself in the lead echelon of cycle sport. We meet soon after the announcement that he is joining his former boss at Discovery, Johan Bruyneel, at the reformed Astana outfit. Whatever the recent history, it’s a good place to be: there are a diminishing number of directeurs sportifs with a three-year contract.
“Johan’s the man, as far as I am concerned,” he says. “I worked with Bjarne Riis, but communication with Bjarne is not the easiest, which I’ve said before – although I can’t fault him, because he’s passionate about his bike riders and he gives it 110 per cent. But it’s not as comfortable working with someone you can’t really communicate with in a relaxed fashion. Johan’s been very successful, and he knows that I’m not going to let the side down, which is why Lance asked me back onto the team, because he knew he could count on me.
“I think my strength is that I’m good at relating to people. The human side is what I’m good at. The fact that I’ve still been riding my bike, racing, you know that you can’t always be good; you have bad days. So when the riders are depressed, they’ve got shit form, they’ve had their girlfriends screaming at them or whatever, it’s to relate to the riders, try to help them when they’re down and motivate them to do the right thing. I was more of a loner, but some guys need more attention or demand it.”
There is a core of self-sufficiency about Sean. You know he’d have no trouble on a desert island. He’d set himself a goal, then slog till he got it done, then find another to achieve. If there ever is any existential doubt, it’s transitory as long as there’s a task in hand.
“When I’ve been doing time trials, you focus all week on doing some poxy time trial, and you get on the start line and you think, ‘Christ, what am I doing here? Here I am again; I must be mad.’ As soon as you start, it’s OK, and you get into it. All that training you’ve been doing, it’s to do this.
“With age, you can always lift your game, use your experience, prepare right, get rested up, and that’s right up my alley, mentally. To sit on the back of a tandem [with Zak Carr] when you’ve never done it before, and go out and hammer it for 12 hours... I’m into suffering. I wish I could go and climb Everest, or do an SAS survival course. I’m past that now, plus I’ve got a heart condition, but that’s what I’m about.”
If he hadn’t had to face up to the cardiac condition, there’s no question about whether he’d be backing off now. Having set a record of 304.6 miles for the tandem 12-hour – a ride that left him temporarily crippled – he’d have been thinking about the 24-hour mark. Isn’t it hard then, I ask, for him not only to change the habit of a lifetime, but his whole way of being? The laid-back Sean says not.
“In a way, I was relieved. I’m getting older. It was getting harder and harder. You have to train more. And it was like a relief when it came because it meant I could just relax. Whereas before, I’ve got three kids, I’m divorced, I’ve got to look after them, and then – even though I’d had 15 years as a pro – I’d start to get stressed about what training I’d do for some poxy bloody time trial. So I could be so much more relaxed, in general, whereas before if I missed one day or two days... training would always come first.
"I remember once I said to my [now ex-] wife – because she said, ‘Are you going out on your bike today or something?’ as I was getting ready, and I hadn’t told her. I said, ‘You’ve just got to assume I’m going out on my bike every fucking day.’ When we were first married and the kids were young, every night I’d be in the garage on the home trainer. I’d be working all day as a gardener, come home, have dinner and just bloody go to the garage. And she’d just go to bed on her own. No wonder she divorced me. When I think back, that was just part of my make-up: everything to the extreme. I wouldn’t have got to where I am today if I’d not been like that, either result-wise or, the other side of the coin, divorced. Obviously, you look back and you think, ‘Shit, I was mad. I should have just chilled out and enjoyed family life.’ But you can’t change what happened.”
But the driven, driving Sean is not done yet.
“I can step off that treadmill... but then there I am saying I’m going to get ready for the Southborough and District Wheelers New Year’s Day 10. That is definitely going to be my last one. Because I know I stand a chance there because people aren’t going to be fit. I know I’m pushing the boundaries.
"It’s the same when I’m riding my motorbike down these country roads. I know that one of these days I’m going to hit the dust and I’m going to be fucking history, but sod it... I don’t do it that much. What are the odds?”