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Sean Yates’ tall, slightly gaunt figure sauntered into the pub, a box of his autobiographies under his arm. Definitely not a swagger though: his modesty is overwhelming. A well-worn Astana jacket, an old pair of jeans and a scuffed pair of Team Sky trainers could be a sign of someone who likes wearing his history. He has accepted my request to come and talk to riders participating in the Tour de Force. We had been riding on his roads in the Ashdown Forest, roads that forged a wild teenager with a passion for riding hard into one of the toughest and most selfless riders in the pro peloton. Although no longer a DS on the pro circuit, he is still busy coaching, helping out with the NFTO project, the Catford CC and mentoring his elder sons who both race. So it was pretty good of him to come along, I thought.
I first met Sean in April 2007. I had planned to climb 300 cols in 26 days to celebrate my 50th (and raise quite a bit for charity) and as the challenge approached panic and doubt was creeping in. Things led me to a five-hour ride with Sean on these same roads. At the end of the ride I was fired up and although he questioned my mental health, he gave me the green light on the physical plane. That summer, as I climbed my long list of hills, Sean would reply to my progress reports snappily whilst he was busy, as DS for Discovery, taking Alberto Contador to his first Tour victory. It never occurred to me to take any personal credit from this fact: I was just so grateful for his generosity. Not many people do that sort of thing.
He tries to dispel the legend of being a hardman.
“Everyone has to suffer in sport. Cyclists have to suffer more than others, for sure. I just get on with it, trying to manage the pain as best as possible.”
Perhaps this is the key to his ability to push himself so hard: he doesn’t analyse it because that is just the way he likes to ride. That, and a pure and very deep love of just being out on his bike (as a DS he would still get out regularly for a pre-breakfast ride when on tour). Someone who has such an astonishing record of TT performances, many of them in the aftermath of his pro years, has to have some special powers when it comes to long efforts. Even major health problems over the last decade haven’t stopped him. On that ride with him in 2007 he talked about a spell he had working as a gardener again, before he accepted his role with Discovery: he had a particularly long hedge to trim for a client, and thought it would be good training for the 24-hour Tandem TT he had his eye, if he did it non-stop. He set up lights, generator, radio, and swung an electric hedge-trimmer around. For 24 hours…
His ability to ride endlessly on the front earned him the occasional solo victory but most of his riding was done for others to take the glory. Even now, he seems more excited talking about his sons racing than about his own career. Ask him about an anecdote in his book, and he always pauses first. “I guess I should read it one day.” Long may our sport be graced with personalities like Sean, we’re lucky to have him around.
What was your biggest inspiration to race a bike?
As a kid, we had no TV at home so coverage of any sport was pretty basic. The Tour and all the continental races seemed another world away. ‘Cycling’ magazine was where I found my heroes and inspiration: national TT champs like Alf Engers and Eddie Adkins were the ones I wanted to be as tough as.
Who were the riders you enjoyed riding with most in your career?
Alan Peiper and Dag Otto: we trained together a lot and became great friends, which meant that we were able to work especially well for each other in races; when one of us was not having the best of days, we would try and look after each other.
Is there one day that stands out as your toughest on a bike?
Stage 13 of the 1992 Tour was one to remember for Claudio Chiappucci, but for me it was hell. Five big climbs including the 45km Iseran climb: for non-climbers like me it was all about making the cut-off time. I had been in the early break only to try and get some time in before I started slipping back into the survival zone. It was a long day.
Another one that stands out for me was on the ’89 Tour stage: Briancon – Alpe d’Huez. I woke up feeling that the lasagne from the night before was not the best thing I had ever eaten. Hitting the Galibier from the gun proved the point. Pure Suffering. From St Jean de Maurienne up to St Sorlin, at the foot of the final part of the Croix de Fer, I was on my own for 37kms, fighting to get back to the grupetto which was going to ‘carry’ me up the Alpe to make the cut-off. Puking and pedalling is no fun. 5km from the Croix summit I suddenly came to, as if I had actually vomited the bug out of me. I could see the grupetto up on the hairpins and in 5km I’d almost caught them. By the time we finished the descent I was safely tucked in and I was able to ‘survive’ the Alpe and make the cut-off. The next day, another day in the mountains, I was flying. But the dodgy lasagne had got to two of my team-mates; they never made the cut-off and were eliminated.
Does it take more courage to suffer alone?
It is all about pain management, which is an individual thing. So I never noticed a difference between being on a solo break or being part of a grupetto, struggling to make the cut-off time. I was used to riding for a long time on the threshold. That was the way I always trained; getting as many miles in as possible, pushing to see how much more I could get out of my body. That’s always been how I like to ride.
Where does the ability to suffer come from?
All sports demand effort from the body. When effort turns to pain is when you have to learn how to manage this. You discover how far you can push yourself and how much more you can ask from your body. Cycling requires a constant input of effort and for a longer time than most other sports. You soon learn that how you are going to deal with this sustained effort, and how long you will let the effort become pain, will determine how good you become as a cyclist. It is a process of self-discovery. No one can teach you this. The ability comes from within.
Who are the big sufferers in today’s peloton?
One rider who comes to mind is Geraint Thomas. I have watched him suffer and just never give up. His courage is equal to his pure talent. But no one becomes a pro rider unless they can deal with the highest levels of suffering. Having said that, we are humans too. I too as a young pro stopped and hid at a feed zone until the race had gone by when it was just too cold and miserable out there; sciving back to the relative comforts of a one-star hotel.
From your time as a DS, can you give an example of when the ability to suffer and the sheer talent of a rider combined perfectly?
La Planche de Belles Filles 2012. I had worked out a plan based on our riders’ ability to give absolutely everything they had, going so hard that no-one else in the peloton would hopefully be able to follow. We had ridden that final climb on reconnaissance and for the race I worked out a very precise plan for each riders’ part in our collective team victory. Over the radio I called each one, in turn, to take over at the front pace-setting at a specific pre-planned moment, leaving Chris and Brad for the finish. Cadel, another rider who knows how to hurt himself, was the only one who looked to be a threat to the plan. It was an amazing day.
How has the world of the peloton most changed since you were a rider?
There is far more financial pressure in the sport now, so teams have to make decisions on races to please the sponsors, sometimes to the detriment of riders. There is more pressure on riders to perform, even though we too had to fight for our next contract. The financial and media pressure has also helped to clean up the sport.