By Robbie Broughton
Are we Brits becoming a bit complacent about our fellow countrymen winning stages of and leading grand tours? The cycling cognoscenti certainly aren’t, as can be seen by the deluge of praise on social media for Simon Yates who wears pink at this year’s Giro. One just wishes that the wider British public were aware of what a fantastic achievement it is.
On Sunday he won a mountain top finish, beating some of the best cyclists in the world and leaving five time Grand Tour winner, Chris Froome, trailing in his wake by over a minute. He snuck round the outside of Frenchman, Thibaut Pinot, in a beautifully calculated move as he stormed up the ramp to the finish line. It was a display of not only raw power but savvy racing nous as he positioned himself brilliantly and picked the perfect moment to attack.
Two days earlier he showed absolute class by, not only winning the coveted pink, but handing the stage victory to his teammate Esteban Chaves who had worked hard all day in the breakaway.
If anyone thought those two stages were a lucky fluke, those doubts were laid to rest on Wednesday when he launched a stinging attack on the slopes of the hilltop town of Osimo, 1500 metres from the finish line. As defending Giro champion, Tom Dumoulin, ground his way up behind him, the gap appeared to narrow and one wondered if he’d gone to early. How many of us were screaming at the telly, urging him on to the finish line? It turned out to be an audacious move that extended his overall lead to 47 seconds as he picked up more bonus seconds for winning the stage.
According to power numbers, provided by Velon, he produced an average of 560w, maxing out at 950w that left his rivals toiling up the hill behind him. He averaged over 26 kmh on a climb that featured gradients of up to 14% over narrow cobbled streets, faster than anyone else in the peloton.
His general composure is remarkable for a newbie GC contender. He looks supremely comfortable, following all the big accelerations of his opponents and calmly looking all around him when everyone else seems to be on the rivet. He tends to hang back a little from the small, select group he finds himself in before picking the right moment. Crossing the finish line his face breaks into an enormous grin and his post race interviews reveal a maturity beyond his years
At the tender age of 25, young for a GC rider, Simon and his twin brother, Adam, have been racing professionally for four years now. Dave Brailsford must be ruing the day he let the Yates twins sign up with Orica Green Edge and not Team Sky, which professes a desire to nurture the best of British talent.
To succeed in the ultra competitive world of bike racing is one thing, but to become one of the leading men as a GC contender is another thing entirely. Just look at riders like Geraint Thomas, one of the most successful British cyclists around, yet his GC ambitions have never come to fruition. Then consider how talented riders like Peter Kennaugh and Ben Swift have been unable to reach that very top tier that Simon Yates now commands.
Both Yates brothers have been carefully nurtured, protected and developed by their team for the last few years. They began bike racing when their father introduced them to the track at the Manchester Velodrome. The twins would train on the moors outside their Bury home, each brother pushing on the other – a similar sibling rivalry to the triathlon Brownlee brothers, a family competition that seems to bring the best out of both.
Simon was selected by British Cycling for its Olympic Academy programme and his roommate for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi was none other than Chris Froome. His track credentials were established when he won Gold in the points race of the 2013 Track World Championships, the same year that he made his breakthrough in road racing for the British National team. That year he finished third overall in the Tour of Britain, even snatching a stage victory off Bradley Wiggins and Nairo Quintana.
Under the careful tutelage of Matt White at Orica Greenedge (now Mitchelton Scott) their talents have been carefully developed. One wonders if the same would have happened at Sky where their role could have become the super domestique variety rather than being groomed as future (now present) Grand Tour contenders?
Over half of the Giro is behind the peloton now. The powerful Dumoulin will be hoping to make up the time he’s lost so far on the 34.5 km time trial on stage 16. Simon, the diminutive Brit at only 5 foot 8 inches tall and a lightweight 58 kg will be pinning his hopes on winning the overall in the mountains. Can he put enough time between them on Mount Zoncolan on Saturday to deny the Dutchman? It looks like a fascinating battle between worthy contenders.
One thing is sure however. Simon Yates’s stature in professional bike racing has risen to new heights in the past week. Let’s do all we can to make sure that his achievements are as recognised back at home as they are on the continent.