Interview by Larry Hickmott | Photos from John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia)
For cycling fans of the modern era, Sean Yates may well be remembered as the person in the team car at the Tour de France directing Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins to a victory in the Tour de France in 2012. That was, he admits, the pinnacle of his career as a director sportif, a British rider in a British team winning the biggest bike race in the world. But Sean achieved so much more than that during his 32 year career.
Sean faces the media for Team Sky as a director sportif. Photo: John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia)
As Sean explained, the job of being a director sportif is a very different world to the one you and I live in. It is a massive change leaving the pro peloton and starting the second stage of his life. As well as the coaching at Trainsharp, he is also writing a book which if the few hours I had talking to him is anything to go by, it will be an enthralling read as he’s achieved so much in his career.
“It’s going to be called “It is all about the bike” which during my career it was” he explained.
Sean is one of those individuals who just loves riding his bike just like so many reading this will do. He recalled a conversation with his ex-wife who asked him one day is he going for a ride to which Sean simply replied “sweetheart, just assume I am going to go riding every day!”
“sweetheart, just assume I am going to go riding every day!”
In having that love for riding the bike and smashing it as he sees fit, he is for sure ‘old school’ in so many ways but during his latter days as a rider, he has also seen how training to be successful like Brad Wiggins was in 2012 has changed so much. The partnership of Trainsharp’s head cycling coach Jon Sharples and Sean is one of opposites.
Jon has been fortunate enough to be part of Research study groups at the University of Brighton along with the likes of Peter Keen and other successful sport scientists, while Sean’s school was in the professional peloton and so they have very different skillsets. Sean cheekily described it as Jon being the brains behind the company and him the brawn!
Jon Sharples and Sean Yates from Trainsharp coaching riders to help them fulfil their potential on the bike whatever their goals.
Because of that, the Trainsharp coaching business can offer so much more to their clients than just coaching. You can’t buy experience in life but you can work with someone who has lived that experience. Sean has seen first hand how the worlds best are coached whilst he himself was helping the very same riders get the most from races like Paris Nice, The Tour de France etc with his knowledge of tactics and more.
The interview with Sean took place at Trainsharp’s headquarters in the middle of the Kent countryside that screams at you to go cycling. On the walk in, I pass by some stables complete with their resident horses and I entered a series of offices that were typically high tec. Laptops with SRM files, emails from riders and spread-sheets whilst in another room, the hurt locker where the SRM power testing machine was sitting awaiting another victim.
After a quick tour of the offices I sat down with Sean who had made his own way in the sport long before the lottery was ever thought of and success by British riders was no where near as common as it is today. Not only did he wear the Yellow jersey in the Tour de France, but he also won stages in Grand Tours (France and Spain) and classic stage races as well as top tens in the monument that is Paris-Roubaix.
If that wasn’t enough, he’s been a director sportif for well over a decade and was there guiding Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins to that historic victory in the 2012 Tour de France. Sean knows what it takes to get results in low budget teams like the Linda McCartney pro team he was a DS in back in 2000 and 2001 and also in mega high pressure teams like Team Sky.
Sean racing in Europe wearing the colours of British champion just like so many pros are doing these days. Photo: John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia)
For those thinking Sean is new to coaching and Trainsharp, actually he’s not. He has just been rather distracted for a few years at Team Sky whilst at the same time having been part of Trainsharp since day one.
Having decided to leave the pro peloton, Sean is back living in the same world as you and I. Pre interview, we did the same as fans do all round the country, the World even; we talked cycling. Whether it was what it was like to ride a category 3-4 race or about the Wiggins/Froome tandem working towards their respective goals, Sean has a view on it all from having been there and done it.
The big difference is however, is that Sean has an insight into what makes these top riders tick that none of us do whilst also being able to see the mistakes being made by riders in a domestic race. After 32 years at the top, he is a veritable mine of information and it is easy to see just how tempting it is to have such a person as a coach, which of course you or I can.
I remember my teenage years when a rider who had ridden for TI Raleigh, Dave Watson, came to race in my local town in Australia. It was impossible not to ask questions and ‘mine’ him for any little gems he could come up with to help us youngsters improve. Almost 40 years on and here I was talking to someone who had far more experience than Dave and not only that, was keen to pass that on to aspiring champions.
With Trainsharp though you get more than just a rider’s tales of what he did to ride the Tour de France. On one hand, Sean can read a race like no other whilst also knowing in combination with Jon, what it takes a rider to get the best from themselves in training. It is some combination but what about Sean Yates the racer?
A very young Sean Yates admires an early Eddy Merckx bike with the great man himself. Photo: John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia)
Sean Yates – the years on a bike
Having just driven for five hours to get to the Trainsharp headquarters, I wasn’t just there to talking about why Sean had retired at the top of his profession. I wanted to be a little self-indulgent and talk to the rider who I had only ever read about in cycling magazines when I raced myself a long way away in Australia.
His success in races came despite being one of the ‘super’ domestiques of the time and his reign stretched over a long period. For me, the highlights were performances that made headlines in the press like his historic win in a Tour de France time trial for example which came in 1988 and then six years later in 1994, he donned the Yellow jersey that so few British riders have had the chance to do in the race’s 99 year history.
His win in the time trial came before tri-bars and was the fastest average speed for a time trial recorded up until that time. Talking about career highlights though, Sean explained how he’d been thinking of just that subject on a ride only the day before.
“The ones I really enjoyed on a personal level were the performances post pro career like the tandem competition records I did with Michael Hutchinson and the 12 hour with the late Zak Carr”.
“The ones I really enjoyed on a personal level were the performances post pro career like the tandem competition records I did with Michael Hutchinson and the 12 hour with the late Zak Carr”.
“Obviously, wearing the yellow jersey, everyone dreams of that and to get that for one day was a crowning glory so to speak on my career.”
“It was something I strived to do throughout my career but that day, it just happened. It was the longest stage of the Tour and the stars of the time didn’t want to give the jersey away and they tried to chase us but couldn’t bring us back.”
Pre tri-bars, Sean Yates on a pretty radical bike way back in 1988 when he held the record for the fastest time trial in the Tour de France. Photo: John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia)
Sean also wore the leader’s jersey in Paris-Nice which he says was another memorable moment in the career. It was in 1988 and an attack went in the feedzone and from that, a thirty man group went clear with all the favourites. Sean, ever the savvy one with tactics in racing, took advantage of the GC contenders watching each other.
“A lot of the riders who were going for stages were gone and the favourites knew somewhere down the road I’d lose time, so I was given some leeway” Sean explained. He won that stage (the first) by over two minutes solo and then held on to the jersey for a few days before the race went on to be won by another Sean, Sean Kelly, while Yates finished the race in 18th.
Sean has won stages in so many of the races that are household names like the Tour of Spain when he broke away with another Brit, Deno Davie, on the longest stage of the race. They attacked with 20k to go and never had more than 45 seconds on the bunch behind who were chasing flat out behind them and they hung on with Sean taking the stage with the bunch breathing down his neck.
More wins followed in races like Criterium Dauphine and the Midre Libre but one race that stands out is Paris-Roubaix where his best result was fifth. “I was suited to a race like that and that’s why I got results in it because I knew my style of riding could deal with the challenges of that race” he explained.
“It was about churning the big gear and being in the right place at the right time and being able to handle the bike.”
“In ’94 there were only 15 or 20 guys who could handle their bike properly on that day. If you went back further than 20th, the handling was horrible and the bike handling part of it was crucial because it was a bad edition. The highlight of that day was when I was chasing Tchmil and at one point I was second on the road and had dropped Fabio Baldato. Then Johan Museeuw came back and that was pretty surreal being on those sections with these riders and the huge crowds. I ended up being caught by the late Ballerini and others who took the minor places.”
How I do love this picture from John Peirce of a very young professional Sean Yates. Those of you old enough to remember, toe clips and straps, chrome bikes and more. Photo: John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia)
Once the racing as a pro finished, Sean never stopped riding the bike and even competed in time trials and more in Britain. It was though as DS (director sportif) that he continued to make a name for himself. Starting at the bottom with the small British Linda McCartney pro team, Sean worked his way up to be the boss on the road with the top teams like Team Sky.
Asked what his job was as a DS, he explained “it was to make sure things went smoothly in the race and to a certain extent, outside the race although at Sky we had a lot of people who could organise the media and such like.”
It was Sean’s job to manage the tactics of the day, liaise with other teams, read the races and predict what would happen on specific types of stages. It was a very important role and while it wasn’t his legs that would win the race, his decisions could certainly influence whether his team won or lost on the day. By the time he found himself as a DS in Team Sky though he had a huge encyclopaedia of racing knowledge few can match and that just made the job easier despite the pressure for success.
“I have worked with a lot of guys who have been in contention for major wins and seen all these race situations where we’ve been under pressure and having that responsibility of guiding them during the races has given me the experience that stood me in good stead in last years Tour de France with Brad.”
Sean full gas in a team time trial! Those at the Sussex CA Open 22.8 Hard Riders this weekend may seen this same race face! Photo: John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia).
“I’ve been a rider, I knew all the riders and other director sportifs and I knew the race as well. We never really got put into difficulty (in the Tour de France) so I never had to pull things out of the bag to rescue the team’s aims. I certainly had 100 percent confidence in myself to deal with any situation which helped me relax.”
“It was like second nature to me and it’s not a simple formula as there are so many scenarios. Every day all day I was thinking, what if, what if, what if …”
Sean admits that in the 2012 Tour de France, the team never had the luck with Bradley they had the year before when he broke his collarbone. Like many, I remember well last year’s Tour when the top teams had their trains at the front of the speeding peloton trying to keep their riders out of trouble on the flat roads and the crashes in a very nervous group of riders.
“You can help minimise the bad luck by riding at the front” explained Sean “but you had to be careful as well because if you spent too much energy doing that, when the crunch comes, you won’t have it when you need it.”
“We were lucky as well in that we had a very strong team of riders that were all motivated and Brad is a supreme athlete but that first week is tough and we got through it with a combination of luck (limited bad luck) and that strong team.”
Bill Nickson, who worked for Node4-Giodana last year (maybe this too?) and Sean Yates battling it out in a sprint for the National Champions jersey. Photo: John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia).
It was then that Sean started to talk about specific riders and things we rarely get to see or hear about even in this day and age of information overload on the TV and internet. “Riders like Christian Knees ride their heart and soul out for the team and Bradley appreciates that. For me, Christian Knees was my first choice in the team after Brad.”
“You need those guys to help Brad save every ounce of energy mentally and physically so that at the end of the stage when it’s time for Brad to deliver, he has that energy left. While Christian has won only one race or so in his career, you have to remember he’s not there to win a race. He’s there to ride in the wind for Brad in a calm and professional manner because he was the only guy big enough to give Brad maximum protection”.
Having been a rider like that himself, Sean can see the value in super domestiques like Christian but also the value of others. “We were lucky we had guys too like Mick Rogers and Bernie Eisel. You can throw ideas back and forth to guys like these because what I say is not always gospel as you need other input to come to the ultimate solution.”
Sean admits he wasn’t surprised at how Sky dominated the Tour de France in 2012 especially when they had so many big victories to their name like Wiggins wining Paris Nice, Tour of Romandy and the Critérium du Dauphiné for example and he says other teams were by the time the Tour rolled around, intimidated by Team Sky to a certain extent.
“The course ideally suited Brad with the time trials and not that many high mountains whilst Contador and others were missing so everything fell into place. That said, there is no such thing as an easy win in the Tour but it could not have gone any smoother.”
Sean Yates racing the Milk Race. Young aspiring pros like he was in this picture can benefit from Sean’s experience at Trainsharp. Photo: John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia).
That win for him as a DS was special and whilst he admits there have been other races where he has been under more pressure in races from his team’s rivals, nothing can top winning the Tour with a British team and a British rider. So leaving Team Sky in 2012 was the right time to go and he now has new challenges and the winner in that are those riders who want to follow in his footsteps and become professional cyclists or just achieve personal goals that are just as important.
“I first became interested in the training of riders when I joined CSC and I saw riders doing exercises to help improve their performances. Doing things I never did as a rider when I started. That fired my imagination and I was looking at ways of how I could use these things in my own training.”
“I started coaching a few guys like Richard Preeble, Felix English and Tom Copeland in recent years and even then, I thought, one day I’ll have to stop being a DS and do something else.”
Unlike full time riders, the majority of racing cyclists or those doing sportives etc do have to work during the day so training time is limited and they have to get the most from what time they have available. That is where professional coaching comes into the equation.
Sean has swapped the seat in a team car for one in an office and on the bike in 2013 and is loving it … Photo: John Peirce (PhotoSport International. uk usa asia).
Sean would also like to work with young up and coming stars like Doug Dewey (racing in France) who need more than just some-one telling them when to train and how hard. “I want to work with young riders and help them train and improve their lifestyle around their training and racing” he says. “That is an area I feel I can be really good at” Sean adds.
Talking about professionals and would be professionals, Sean describes training and racing as a more of a job than it was. “It was more happy go lucky in my day and more fun and a lot less pressure. Over the years, it’s become a lot more controlled with SRM’s producing files that coaches work with and there is no escape for the riders”
“It’s certainly not a party now which to a certain degree it was in my day.”
“The goal of cyclists wanting to better themselves” explains Sean “should be to be the best they can possibly be, ie; am I going to bed early enough, am I eating right, am I training hard, am I training too hard, is my bike clean, etc etc. They need to see the bigger picture and why they need to buy into what they are being asked to do in order to fulfil their potential. That’s part of the job now; without riders buying into it and taking ownership of the task, it’s not going to work.”
Sean admits one of his strengths is in working with individuals and knowing how much they can cope with in their training they are being given which is such an important part of the training equation. The former Yellow jersey in the Tour has also kept racing and had some fun recently racing a category 3-4 race at Hillingdon. That he said was a bit of fun but still something he learned from.
“I did that for fun as my brother was there (Conall Yates) and my son was going to. I still enjoy the racing so thought why not? I could see guys who couldn’t go round corners or ride efficiently and had no real objective. In coaching, those are things I can work on with riders.”
The goal is to help riders fulfil their dreams he says. “I remember how passionate I was when I started riding and looked up to guys like Eddie Adkins and Alf Engers (both legends!). It has changed so much since I started riding and I feel I can bring some experience to the table.”
Experience indeed! Not only has Sean been a successful rider but also a successful director sportif and now the next challenge is to be just as successful as a coach within the Trainsharp ‘centre of excellence” whilst continuing to ride his bike because as Sean points out, nowadays he doesn’t have to train but simply ride his bike… because the bottom line is that is what he loves doing….
Our thanks to Sean for his time…
1979 – 1980 – 10mile British competition record holder.
1980 – 1st 25 Mile National Champion
1980 – 1st National Pursuit Champion
1980 – 6th Moscow Olympics – Individual pursuit
1980 – 5th Moscow Olympics – Team Pursuit
1981 – Best Amateur ACBB France. 15 wins including the GP France TT.
1980 -1996 – Professional. Peugot – Fagor – 7-11 Motorola.
Yellow Jersey holder in the TDF,
1st Tour of Belgium, GP Eddy Merkx, British Road Race Championships. USA Nat championships – Philadelphia.
Tour of Spain
4Days of Dunkerque
Tour Du pont
Tour of Belgium
Tour de L’Oise
Circuit le Sarthe
Tour of Holland
Paris Roubaix – 5th, 8th ,11th,14th.
1997 – 1st National 50mile Champion
2000 – 1st World Masters Pursuit Champion
2003 – 2nd World Masters Road Race Championships
2005 – 12 hour Tandem Record Holder ( with the late Zak Carr) 303miles
2006 – 3rd National 50mile Championships
2006 – 25 mile Tandem Competitioon Record holder ( with Michael Hutchinson) 43mins 34secs
2011 – 6th National 12 hour Championships. 282miles.
2012 – TDF – SKY/Wiggins 1st
2011 + 2012 – Dauphine – SKY/Wiggins 1st
2012 – tour de Romandie – SKY/Wiggins 1st
2012 – Volta Algarve – SKY/Porte 1st
2012 – Paris Nice – SKY Wiggins 1st
2012 – Bayern Rundfarht – SKY/Rogers – 1st