Bradley Wiggins: “I’ve got a masters degree in Sean Yates.”
Wiggins suggested that he bring along a selection of jerseys from the Yates section of his wardrobe, and then talk through them with the man himself.
Go for it, we said. So he did.
Introduction: Cycling to me has been everything, my whole life. But there is one man in particular, when I was 14 living on a council estate in London, that I wanted to be. We had two riders at the time – Chris Boardman, who is boring as fuck (I love him to bits) but there was someone I really resonated with in Sean Yates.
I never realised that 18 years later, I would win the Tour with him and we would be very close.
I know he was a hero to many, not for the races he won but for the ones he didn’t win. He was so selfless, his motivation was always to ride for other people. He’s the hardest man I know. He’s the skinniest man I know – he’s put some weight on since he stopped. I’d like to introduce to you, my hero Sean Yates.
BRAD: Some bloke said to me do you want some questions to ask him? I replied I’ve got a masters degree in Sean Yates. I ain’t gonna sit up here and go: “So tell me, Sean, when did you start cycling?” F*ck all that!
I have most of Sean’s jerseys from his career, most with the numbers still on, so I brought just a few of them along. This guy is a story teller. He is bonkers. The only I man I know who would do a nine-hour ride before the World Championships. As you can see, he’s let himself go a bit since he stopped.
He’s a man of the people – he’s had an earring for 40 years.
SEAN: I once had a bet with Dag Otto Lauritzen. He said I bet you don’t have an earring past 30 years old, but here I am.
BRAD: We will start with ’88 – [this] Paris-Nice leader’s jersey. I love the way it’s all stitched on there, and there’s a beans on toast stain… You got it on stage 2, didn’t you?
SEAN: I had all my jerseys in a suitcase in the attic and when Bradley mentioned he was interested in some of my jerseys, I went up there and had a dig around.
BRAD: He called me a pervert…
SEAN: I thought that was a good win and a good jersey. Stage 2, ‘88, it was freezing cold, snow at the side of the road, finished in St Etienne
BRAD: You got second there, didn’t you?
SEAN: No, I won it, by 2 and a half minutes, if you please! I was with Fagor at the time, and we decided to attack at the feedzone, which didn’t make us very popular. Fagor weren’t very popular anyway! There was a climb directly after the feed and I felt good and took off from a group of about 30 – Fignon, Kelly, Mottet and the rest. I soloed the last 60k to St. Etienne. It was a tailwind and I was absolutely flying.
BRAD: We’d better move on to another jersey. This is 1988 again, Tour de France stage win, still the fastest time-trial without tri bars. I bought that for €49 off some Frenchman whose dad died. One of the cheapest ones.
SEAN: This was ’88 as you said, which was a very good year for me. Team Fagor were a very unorganised team, so before the Tour I said I was leaving and they almost didn’t pick me. Before this day, which was up near Lisle where I used to live with the late Paul Sherwen, I knew the roads quite well. I felt great, and told the mechanic to put a 54 on. It was another day when I had great legs. I followed the lead motorbike – we didn’t do recons in those days – just watched his brake lights.
BRAD: It was 49kph average, wasn’t it?
SEAN: Yes, I was motoring. I had a time check on Fignon, who was off behind me, and I was like 3 minutes up on him.
BRAD: It’s no wonder you’ve got a heart problem now!
BRAD: Then you joined Motorola. Gent-Wevelgem, 500k breakaway in the rain, no gloves…
SEAN: I did have gloves on actually
BRAD: They had to tell him he’d finished. He ended up in Brussels! You got second there, all day in the break.
SEAN: 247k breakaway. Something like that, in a four-man break. Not many people can lay claim to that.
BRAD: You won the Tour of Belgium that year too, didn’t you?
SEAN: I did, yes. Johan, Fondriest, all those guys.
BRAD: Were they the best years with Motorola and that American set-up?
SEAN: Yes, they were fun times, I had a good position and by that time I knew what I was capable of.
BRAD: Another story I’ve just remembered. When you were at Peugeot, you went to do Paris-Tours. Turned up at Gare du Nord thinking it started in Paris, so you had to ride 100k and got there at midnight!
SEAN: I may look stupid but I ain’t that stupid. I lived in Tours, so I had to get the train to Paris, cycle across the city, and then north to Compiegne. It was 60 or 70k. What happened was I got my wallet stolen at Tours, missed the train so I was late getting into Paris, then rode to the start in the pissing rain in my tracksuit. I came third in Paris-Brussels one year, one of my big results, behind Rolf Sorensen and the late Franco Ballerini.
BRAD: The year after, this story is the best of the lot: first Tour de France, 1984, that stage from Nantes to Bordeaux – 350k. “It took us 12 hours!”
SEAN: 333k, and it took us 10 hours. I was a neo-pro, I was 84 kilos, it’s crazy when you look back but you just did it.
BRAD: But then what did you do after your first Tour? 26 criteriums!
SEAN: 30! Fifty days straight racing. I doubled my salary riding the crits. But I said never again. Robert [Millar] had won the climber’s jersey so they wanted me and Allen Peiper along as his domestiques. I was making 10 grand a year, so I made 20. But it was just too hard. It finished me for the year after.
BRAD: 1992 Paris-Roubaix, you wore a black hairnet [helmet] and massive Oakley Pilots, didn’t you?
SEAN: Yes. It took me seven or eight years to actually finish the race but then I found out that it kind of suited me. In that team, we had Steve Bauer, George [Hincapie] and Frankie [Andreu] but I kind of found my niche. It’s flat, it’s all about power, and positioning, and I really got my teeth into that.
BRAD: This is the one I remember: [Andei] Tchmil, 1994, went with 60k to go, best Paris-Roubaix ever. I was 14. You had a wetsuit on that day, didn’t you, under your clothes, it was that cold?
SEAN: I didn’t have a wetsuit on. I had moved to Belgium, staying at Dag Otto’s house near Kortrijk, and was training over the winter in a wetsuit I had bought in Australia – a shortie. Apart from being a bit sore in the crutch, it was perfect for the bad weather.
It was an epic race, snowing at the start. I had nothing left when Ballerini went, Baldato went with him. Tchmil was long gone. Ludwig was there, Capiot, Duclos, no helmets. I was fifth that day. I think it was voted one of the toughest Classics of the century.
BRAD: [As a DS] I know there’s one stage that you will never forget that you masterminded and it went to plan, didn’t it?
SEAN: The Planche des Belle Filles, which they are going up next year in the Tour time-trial. That is at the start of the first chapter of my book. It was carnage. But I’ve had so many good days. Savoldelli in the 2005 Giro; Alberto winning the Giro in 2008. On Pro Cycling Stats, in 2012 Team Sky won the biggest percentage of races in the history of modern cycling. That’s Team Sky as a whole. The teams I took to races won like 90% of them. It was amazing
BRAD: After the Tour in 2012, we had the Olympics and I asked you to come up and sit in the car behind me in London [for the time-trial]. To see where cycling had come from since that World Champs at Goodwood thirty years before. Someone asked you for an photo at Victoria station. Did you get on a Boris bike and ride to Hampton Court?
SEAN: Yep! We’d won every time-trial that year, me and you, and it was natural that I should come up and be behind you. It’s my passion, seeing people win. That day was unbelievable. You were at the top of your game. And you were perfect, the bike was perfect.
BRAD: It never got any better than that. 469 watts for 50 minutes.
SEAN: Fabian got blown out of the water, but he wasn’t in his best shape.
BRAD: I remember finishing and they said you’ve won, and I said not until Fabian has finished. I looked up to him, never underestimated him.
Obviously, after that you had a spell at Saxo – Adam Blythe.
SEAN: National champion, Ride London. I’ve had so many great moments.
BRAD: And you’re now a coach, so if anyone’s got nine hours spare a day, pay him 50 quid and he’ll do it!
As a kid, you were my hero. I had an earring. I always put my handlebars down, pulled my shorts up and cut my sleeves off. I wanted to be Sean. He is an institution in this country. It was an honour to talk to you.
Watch the conversation in full:
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