“The bar is open!”
Sean Yates, back behind the wheel of a ProTeam car for the first time in two years and looking as if he has never been away, hands the first bidons of a dry and windy day at the Tour of Oman through the window. Cool cat, Yates: lean and rangy, elongated frame stretched out in the driver’s seat, sun pouring through the open window onto bronzed arms and hands. Looks like a rider, still.
The dashboard sensor blinks. 38 degrees. 39 degrees. It’s hot, but Yates doesn’t mind. He lived on the Cote d’Azure as a rider – one of the first to do so. Now they’re all down there. It made perfect sense in his day, holding the training camp close to the early-season races: the Grand Prix of Nice and of Monaco, the Tour of Corsica, Étoile de Bessèges. He often thinks of moving back. Tuscany appeals too. His girlfriend would move at the drop of a hat, he says, but it might take more than hat dropping to prise Yates from Ashdown Forest.
It’s taken the right opportunity to bring him back to the WorldTour. A few ground rules before we leave the hotel car park: Lance is off limits, “and I’m not gonna talk about Sky,” but he does, indirectly, when his former colleagues inevitably crop up in the conversation: Steven de Jongh and Bobby Julich to begin with, fellow exiles from Sky, now, like Yates, directing Tinkoff-Saxo’s riders. He even quotes Dave Brailsford – “control the controllable” – the man who forced his departure in a post-USADA clear out. And of course, the name Wiggins comes up.
Wiggins and Contador: poetry and nails
“Poetry in motion,” says Yates of his Tour winner. He recalls a moment from last season’s Tour of Britain, where Yates was directing, on a day rate, for domestic team NFTO: Wiggins “glass cranking” back to the peloton from a comfort break, pedalling with the apparent softness of one trying not to shatter his crank arms, and all the while churning out 400 watts. “People can’t contemplate how good he is. In the national time trial last year he made the rest look like amateurs when he went up that climb at Celtic Manor.” He shakes his head in disbelief, laughing. “Amateurs!”
Yates has new talents to work with. The mis-firing Peter Sagan – “a physical phenomenon” – is somewhere on the road ahead, though he will not lead the team in the flat finish of this third stage. Matti Breschel will take the mantle; Sagan needs a day off. The Slovakian has rarely been rested during an electrifying five-year period in which winning once seemed too easy and now seems impossible. Yates is sympathetic to the young man’s cause: defeat disappoints Sagan every bit as much as it disappoints Mark Cavendish, he believes, only Cavendish is more inclined to share his feelings. Sagan’s broader talent means he is expected to be in contention on all but summit finishes.
Yates’ race programme includes the Tour, which is likely to mean directing his former employer’s greatest rival: Alberto Contador. “Hard as nails,” he says, an assessment of the Spaniard not frequently made, perhaps discouraged by his balletic climbing style, but no longer in question after he rode on for 10km at last year’s Tour with a broken leg. It’s a description more typically applied to Yates.
On the road again
It’s the quietest stage so far of the Tour of Oman and Yates has time to talk. Daniele Bennati drops back occasionally to the car and on his final visit Yates instructs him to be aware of a sharp change of direction that could split the peloton. He likes and trusts ‘Benna’ – the pair bonded on Tinkoff-Saxo’s descent of Kilimanjaro, where Yates was almost dangerously ill – but if the team is caught napping, it will be Yates’ arse kicked, not the rider’s.
“If something goes wrong, they’re only going to blame one person and that’s the DS. In a Grand Tour, with big names, and big money, and big stakes, that’s a lot of responsibility. People think you just sit in the car and drink ice tea all day. I do all I can to control the controllables.”
Even on a stage as quiet as this, and with a passenger asking questions, Yates has the spare mental capacity for analysis of a peloton now only a few hundred metres ahead on a pan flat road. “My mind is turning over a lot of things: who’s going well, who isn’t, who’s won a lot of races already this year, who hasn’t; who hasn’t signed a contract yet. And if you turn over all this information, you should end up with a logical solution appropriate to the scenario.”
The careful description of a mental process that must now be instinctive is at once at odds with Yates’ earlier and frequently repeated assertion that he is not a thinker, and supportive of it. The logical solution today has been to send Breschel to contest the sprint, but the Dane can only muster seventh on a stage won by Katusha’s formidable Alexander Kristoff.
Unlike Breschel, Yates’ work does not end with the finale. He has ‘rounds’ to make, checking all his well with his riders, and then a plan to prepare for the following stage. It has been his custom as DS to ride the critical parts oft the stage, but in Oman, he is sans bike. The ability to put himself in the riders’ shoes is his chief skill, he believes.
Yates remembers the final of a stage at the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné , recced at 6.30am, that revealed a short section of flat road before the final climb. It may only have been 500m, but for the rider “hanging on for grim death”, as Yates terms it, the intelligence is valued. It was valued particularly on that occasion by Wiggins. “That’s one reason Bradley was good with me: he believed what I said and knew that I didn’t talk for the sake of it.”
Brevity, when required, is another of the sports director’s qualities. “You need them to believe in you,” Yates explains. “You need them to think, ‘If Sean’s saying this, then it’s for a reason. He’s not just saying this because he likes the sound of his own voice.’”
Watch Yates in the paddock, at the roll out, at the finale, and he is in his element. It’s hard to imagine him in any other environment, though he still trims hedges, mostly from concern for his clients. Many of the riders know him, and seemingly all of the senior staff on rival teams. He is a welcome presence and admits to have enjoyed the collective goodwill that his greeted his return, while claiming that only riders who enjoyed a ‘mega career’ are remembered and that familial ties are the only sort that bind.
Yates does not do himself justice with such harsh analysis. Brian Holm Tweeted congratulations for Yates’ role in Adam Blythe’s RideLondon victory for NTFO last season, one which catapulted the rider back into the WorldTour and may have done the same for Yates (Bjarne Riis called him just before the Tour of Britain). He modestly refuses to claim credit, describing Blythe as “a wily young fella”, but unconsciously describes the course as one that “played into my hands”.
“My track record, without being big headed, speaks for itself,” he concludes. “We’ve never messed up and lost a race when in a physical situation we could have won it.” Yates is a grafter still, and expects the same from his charges. He likes riders who “do their job”, whether it be riding on the front, fetching bottles, or protecting their leader from the wind. He doesn’t like those who complain, or do not take their job seriously. They must toe the line, buy into the plan, or risk losing their place.
There are few cycling topics on which Yates does not have an informed opinion, whether it be the need to protect the amateur cyclist on British roads or the importance to professional cycling of showing a return on investment. He is not in good health, but says that, like his dad, he has something of the gypsy about him and is prepared to live from a suitcase for a year. After that, he will see if Tinkoff-Saxo still want him, and if he is strong enough to give his all as a DS each day and ride his bike. If not, he hints, the bike will win out.
For now, he is pleased to be back in the WorldTour, and looking forward to directing again at the highest level. Professional cycling’s travelling circus has missed Yates, if the interactions in Oman are a guide, even if he refuses to admit it. Team Sky will hope that they don’t come to miss him most of all.