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Sean Yates interview

The Tour stage-winner and Tinkoff directeur sportif talks about cycling in football socks and rollicking riders over the team radio.

Sean Yates interview
Mark Bailey
8 Jan 2016

Cyclist: You became Britain’s fifth Tour de France stage-winner when you took victory in the time-trial on Stage 6 in 1988. What are your memories of that day?

Sean Yates: Waiting around forever. Wondering if I’d get beaten or not. That’s the main thing. After winning a stage at the Tour you can say you’ve made it. But the idea that your name is forever in the record books of a race everybody in the world knows about doesn’t really sink in. Only later do you realise, shit, yeah, I’m up there with the big boys now. 

Cyc: In 1994 you became only the third Brit to wear the yellow jersey. You were 34 by then. Had you begun to think it might never happen?

SY: It just shows it’s not over until the fat lady sings. Wearing that yellow jersey is not something any cyclist wants to give up on. I’d been riding for years and it felt like a nice reward. I’ve got the shirt I was presented with, but I put a load of jerseys and memorabilia in a bag and threw the wrong bag in the tip. Then the next thing my medals started popping up on Ebay.

Sean Yates

Cyc: What can you remember about cycling as a child?

SY: In my first ride for East Grinstead Cycling Club I wore an old pair of school shoes that were falling apart, a pair of trousers tucked into some football socks and an old tracksuit top with a broken zip that was sewn up so it didn’t fully do up. I had an old-school education, including knitting classes, which meant I could sew a bit. So I cut out some lettering and sewed ‘EGCC’ on the back. Nowadays my sons ride and there is no way in hell they would go out looking like that. Everybody wants a pair of 300-quid Specialized shoes because they saw Alberto Contador wearing them.

Cyc: How was cycling different in the 1970s?

SY: Nowadays anyone can see what every rider in the world is doing thanks to TV, Twitter, Strava and magazines. When I was younger you had no idea what was happening. Paris-Roubaix might crop up on Grandstand [on the BBC] but as a cyclist you felt total isolation. It was the same when I was training. If I cycle today near Catford I will see 100 riders. Back then, I wouldn’t see that many cyclists in two years. It was like you were on a solo mission.

Cyc: So how did you get into cycling?

SY: I lived in Ashdown Forest and cycling was the only form of transport. I’d ride with my friends and brother. We would ride to the coast, to Brighton, to the South Downs. It was an adventure. But I was competitive and wanted to race. I had some money left over from a Premium Bond and bought a nice bike, then wrote to East Grinstead Cycling Club. I raced in Sussex, then the South East, then nationally. 

Cyc: Who did you look up to?

SY: Guys like Sid Barras and Keith Lambert were the stars at the time, but I liked Alf Engers, who was king of the time-trial, and Eddie Adkins. I remember thinking I should write to Jim’ll Fix It to see if I could get to meet Sid Barras. When I first saw Keith Lambert he had legs like oak trees. I thought, ‘These guys are like animals. I’m just a scrawny kid.’

Sean Yates portrait

Cyc: How did you end up racing for Athletic Club Boulogne-Billancourt in France?

SY: Guys like Paul Sherwen, Robert Millar and Stephen Roche had been through ACBB. They were always looking for British riders because we had a good reputation: they knew if you were going abroad to race you were hungrier than some of the French guys. I got a one-off chance to race in the South of France and someone said, ‘Send us your CV and we’ll consider you.’ The next week I finished second in a race behind Stephen Roche and they said, ‘Forget the CV, you’re in.’ A year later I moved to Peugeot as a pro.

In my day we’d hang out the back of the bunch and chat for hours.

Cyc: Are you glad you were a pro then and not now?

SY: For sure. Everything is more controlled now with race reports and strategies. You have the DS – me – in your ear saying, ‘I can see you, move up to the front.’ Especially in the yellow Tinkoff kit – it sticks out a mile so if there are six of our riders up top and one at the back I’m soon saying, ‘Get up there!’ I often say to the riders, ‘What’s the gossip today?’ They say, ‘We didn’t have time to talk.’ In my day we’d hang out the back of the bunch and chat for hours.

Cyc: How does the pressure compare now you’re a directeur sportif?

SY: You’re completely responsible for planning the race tactics but if the riders don’t carry out those orders you still feel like you’ve done something wrong. But when you win, it’s brilliant. Obviously 2012 was a special year when I was DS at Team Sky and Brad won the Tour. I have a close affinity with Bradley – he likes The Jam too and I went to see them in Brighton recently – so we had some good times together. Brad is my claim to fame, really.

Cyc: You got on with Bradley Wiggins but not Mark Cavendish. Do you have to adapt to different personalities?

SY: Yeah you do, and maybe I’m not the best at dealing with individuals. I’m pretty matter of fact, you know. The guys are paid to do a job and they need to do it. With Cav I know we didn’t get on because I think I was so focused on Bradley. Obviously Cav had a reputation – although he has mellowed a lot – for being a bit of a handful and I just couldn’t be dealing with that. He took that to heart a little bit. But every individual is different and you have to approach them accordingly. But the guys are professional athletes and there is only a certain amount of pampering you can do before you think, ‘Hang on, I’m not a psychiatrist, we’re all here to do a job.’

Sean Yates profile

Cyc: Can Alberto Contador beat Chris Froome next year [2016]?

SY: Chris is hard to beat but nobody is unbeatable and he was vulnerable on Alpe d’Huez this year [2015]. The more wins he gets, the more other teams realise what they need to do, as they did this year when they joined forces to unseat him. Alberto wasn’t in good shape this year, he was a bit flat, but he was still up there. Next year Ventoux will be unforgiving – if you have a bad day there it’s even worse than Alpe d’Huez.

Cyc: Which young British riders could be future Tour winners?

SY: The Yates boys [Simon and Adam, no relation to Sean] are certainly very talented and the way they have come onto the world scene is quite astonishing. Then you look at Sky bringing through guys who pop out of the woodwork like Alex Peters. And you have Geraint Thomas who will think, ‘I can win this now.’ The more people coming into cycling at grassroots level, the more people we will see winning at elite level.

Cyc: How long do you plan to stay involved in cycling? 

SY: Definitely next year but beyond that the future of the team is not secure. I’m getting on a bit and thinking: do I really want to travel so much? But cycling has been my life for 35 years. I cycle. My kids cycle. I watch cycling. Part of me wants to retire, live down a dirt track in the country, go fishing and shoot some wild boar. I do a bit of hedge-trimming over the winter now, which I enjoy. But if somebody wants me to work at a WorldTour team it will be hard to say no. 

For coaching with Sean visit trainsharpcyclecoaching.co.uk

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