Simon Yates came up the hard way and is making the Giro seem easy

Richard Williams
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Simon Yates and the pink jersey win Sunday’s stage atop the Gran Sasso d’Italia.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images</span>
Simon Yates and the pink jersey win Sunday’s stage atop the Gran Sasso d’Italia. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Simon Yates launched his first big move when the riders of the Giro d’Italia were toiling up the slopes of Mount Etna. Sitting calmly in the wheels near the front of a large group full of big names, he waited until the finish line was 1.5km away. Then, with a quiet smoothness, he accelerated out of the bunch and simply glided away.

Ahead lay only his team-mate Esteban Chaves, who had escaped with 25km to go. As he rode up to the Colombian, Yates knew he had done enough to put himself in the leader’s pink jersey. Crossing the line first would bring a bonus of 10 seconds, against six seconds for second place. With the end of the final stage in Rome still more than a fortnight away, those four seconds may turn out to be crucial.

But then Yates did something remarkable. He dropped back half a bike’s length, watching his team-mate take the stage win. The gesture showed he respected Chaves’s great effort, demonstrated he is a team player and honoured the history and etiquette of his sport. At 25, he was showing a mature appreciation of the bigger picture.

His second great moment came on Sunday, on another mountain. The Gran Sasso d’Italia dominates the Abruzzo region and again Yates found himself approaching the climax of an exhausting 225km stage in the company of the race’s big favourites. As the leading bunch surged towards the finish, Miguel Ángel López, Thibaud Pinot and Domenico Pozzovivo launched individual attacks but on the last long left-hand bend Yates simply rode around them, sailing clear with the aplomb he had shown three days earlier. By taking the bonus he increased his lead to 32 seconds over Chaves and 38 over Tom Dumoulin, the defending champion, with Chris Froome, who struggled over the line in 23rd place, now more than two minutes in arrears in the overall classification.

You could only wonder what certain other British riders were thinking as they watched Yates take his win with a calmness that suggested it was he, rather than Froome, who had several grand tour wins under his belt. Eight years ago, Geraint Thomas, Ben Swift and Peter Kennaugh opted to join the new Team Sky programme, their hearts full of hope and ambition. Each is a talented racer and Thomas even held the yellow jersey for a few days at last year’s Tour de France. But he is 31, while Swift is 30 and Kennaugh 28. Thomas will support Froome at this year’s Tour while Swift is in his second season with UAE Abu Dhabi and Kennaugh his first with Bora-Hansgrohe.

Yates, along with his twin brother, Adam, chose a different path. When their time to make a big call came five years ago, they opted to join an Australian team then called Orica-GreenEdge. The team are now known as Mitchelton-Scott and its sporting director, Matt White, has displayed the sort of confidence in the Yates brothers that Sky’s young riders, lining up to support first Bradley Wiggins and then Froome, or sidelined in favour of bigger names from Italy, Spain, Colombia and elsewhere, have never been granted.

Born in Bury on 7 August, 1992, nine days after Chris Boardman had laid down a marker for British cycling by winning gold in Barcelona, the Yates brothers followed their father into track cycling and became part of the Olympic development programme in Manchester. When Adam was not invited to take the next step with a place in British Cycling’s academy, he moved to France and spent three years riding for amateur clubs alongside future stars such as Pinot and Warren Barguil. Simon did get an invitation, which he accepted. In 2013, wearing British Cycling’s colours, he won two stages of the Tour de l’Avenir, an important race for promising young riders, and a stage of the Tour of Britain, beating Wiggins and Nairo Quintana to a hilltop finish on Dartmoor.

Then came their biggest decision, which for Simon involved rejecting an overture from Sky. It was like a young player from Chelsea’s academy joining Liverpool or Spurs in the belief he would get regular games. Money didn’t come into it, he said; he simply appreciated the programme the Australians were offering. It is a sign of the brothers’ shrewdness that, although they are close, they used different agents to negotiate their deals with the same team in case things did not work out for one of them.

<span class="element-image__caption">Yates and team-mate Esteban Chaves at the stage finish on Etna.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images</span>
Yates and team-mate Esteban Chaves at the stage finish on Etna. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The past four seasons have been a story of careful development, with one notable blip when the team’s incorrect completion of a therapeutic use exemption form for an asthma inhaler during the 2016 Paris-Nice race brought Simon a four-month UCI ban for “non-intentional doping”. That year Adam won the white jersey for best young rider in the Tour de France, an achievement matched 12 months later by Simon.

Now Simon is not just leading a grand tour but doing so with an air of utter confidence. Froome may yet discover his form before the 34km time trial that opens the race’s final week when the powerful Dumoulin represents an equal threat, but further huge mountain stages could give Yates the chance to make up for any time lost.

With 2,000km still to cover before the race enters the gates of Rome, it’s a lot to ask. But if you’ve been watching him over the past few days, launching his attacks with lethal timing and a fluency that recalls the sport’s great stylists, you may not want to bet against the Giro celebrating its 101st edition with its first British winner.

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