“I once raced a team pursuit with Simon and Adam,” remembers Nick Hall, long-time chairman of Bury Clairon Cycling Club, where the Yates twins began their cycling journey. “They were about 14 and I was in my 40s. They dropped me with about three miles to go, just left me behind,” he laughs. “And of course, we won.”
This was the Yates duo right from the start: whether it was humiliating bigger kids on the track or racing each other up the Lumb Carr Road climb, they were clearly exceptional talents from the moment they first tried their hand at the Manchester Velodrome. “They were different,” says Hall. “Every young boy round here wanted to grow up and play for Man United. But if you asked Adam or Simon, they would say ‘I want be a professional cyclist’.”
For those like Hall who’ve followed the brothers from the start, their rise to the top of the sport – Adam was by his brother’s side as Simon clinched the Vuelta a Espana on Sunday – is no great surprise. Grand-tour glory was simply a natural progression: winning in the youth ranks, turning professional, winning one-day races, claiming the best young rider prize at the Tour de France, before maturing into general classification contenders.
Adam Yates, left, played a supporting role for his brother Simon (EPA)
As Simon rolled into Madrid at the end of stage 21, won by Elia Viviani in a sprint ahead of Peter Sagan, he completed a remarkable clean sweep for British cyclists in 2018, following Chris Froome’s Giro success in Rome and Geraint Thomas’s Tour de France victory in Paris. The past five grand tours have all been won by a Briton, something no country has ever done before, yet in some quarters the fifth of that run has been received altogether more positively than the rest.
“I ride with a club in Spain,” says Hall, “and my Spanish friends have been getting right behind Simon all through the Vuelta, even more than Alejandro Valverde [the veteran Spaniard]. Because of his character and the way he rides – and I think it’s also an anti-Sky thing.”
This is what makes the Yates’s story so distinctive from other homegrown successes. Their early careers diverged when Simon remained in the British Cycling system and Adam went out to race in France, but when they came back together they made the choice to join emerging Australian team Orica GreenEdge (now Mitchelton-Scott, whom the pair still represent).
Simon Yates, in red, on the start line before riding into Madrid (EPA)
It seems likely there was contact from Team Sky at that early stage but instead they signed for a team known for its laidback approach and no-pressure style – almost the antithesis of Team Sky’s forensic methods – where they were told as young riders they would be given opportunities on the grand-tour stage straight away.
That move is to their credit: it helped them develop outside Sky’s more intense spotlight, and both brothers won the prestigious young rider’s white jersey at the Tour de France in back-to-back years (Adam in 2016, Simon in 2017). This year, a couple of things forced them to the fore: aged 26, they were no longer eligible for the young jersey award, while at the same time Mitchelton-Scott’s leading grand-tour rider, the Colombian Esteban Chaves, suffered a career-threatening injury, since which he has not been the same rider. “Suddenly they weren’t able to hide behind the white jersey or top-10 finishes, as respectable as those achievements were,” explains cycling analyst Cillian Kelly. “They had to aim higher and compete for grand tour victories. I think that added pressure has helped them step up to another level.”
Mitchelton-Scott have evolved in perfect synchronicity with the brothers, from one-day specialists to stage-racers. It has been a learning curve for both team and riders, and principal Matt White has made no secret of the fact that their strategy in this Vuelta has been the exact opposite of their disastrous Giro, when Simon went hard in the opening two weeks only to implode on stage 19.
Simon Yates seems a universally popular winner (AP)
The course this time has suited a more measured approach, without any tempting summit finishes to attack in the early days, and both Simon and Adam have carefully conserved their energy to the point where they were able to absorb sustained attacks from their closest rivals in the final days; it meant they combined all that tactical nous, learned on the pinewood of the Manchester Velodrome and the country roads of Lancashire, with a far more measured output of energy.
Perhaps Simon benefitted from a little luck along the way, like the crosswinds which swept through stage six, splintering the pack and decimating the challenge of several rivals including the Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, who later won two stages, but there is no denying he has been the best rider over three weeks.
Time will tell whether Adam – who Simon described as his “secret weapon” – can follow suit, having come close to a first stage win at the Tour de France this year, and whether we are on the cusp of an era of two Britons from the same family becoming serial grand-tour winners. “They learned the lessons after going gung-ho at the Giro,” says Kelly. “His [Simon’s] form has been unflappable. Apart from a few seconds lost to Valverde on stage 18, he’s never looked vulnerable at any point. They are young and there’s no reason why they can’t go and win more.”
You suspect those who watched the brothers first take to two wheels in Bury wouldn’t be surprised; perhaps this was simply the next logical step in their relentless climb to the top.