Simon Yates separated himself from the rest of the bunch. He perched with his bike atop a stone ramp, looking out over the peloton as it assembled between refurbished mudbrick shops for the final stage of the Alula Tour.
The sun was bright, and the sky was clear but the air in the ancient Arabian desert Alula is carved from was as wintry cold as the expectation Yates was shouldering.
The pressure on him to perform at the five-day race had not gone unnoticed and was made even more tantamount with the earlier withdrawal of Jayco-Alula teammate Dylan Groenewegen, who got gastro and abandoned after stage three. Now he had no one to share the load with. All eyes were on him to salvage something for the team on the last day of the race, which Australian benefactor Gerry Ryan would later compare to the Tour de France in terms of importance to the squad he founded.
Yates was in a similar position the month before at the Tour Down Under, where he commenced his 2024 campaign. You could argue his selection was counterintuitive to his main aim this season of finishing on the podium at the Tour de France after placing fourth last year behind Jonas Vingegaard (Visma-Lease a Bike), Tadej Pogačar and his twin brother, Adam Yates (both UAE Team Emirates).
“I want to go back to the Tour. After last July I already had that in mind to go back,” he said.
“Of course, every year is different, and the competitors are different and it’s always difficult, but I would really like to try and go after that because then I’ve also been on the podium of every Grand Tour, and not many guys can say that.
“It's a big goal, but why not go after it?
“I mean, last year were my best numbers I ever did. I don’t know if I can keep improving. I hope so. And I’m still motivated. I’m getting older now. Just at the Tour Down Under for some reason I checked the start list and … I was second oldest in the team, and it didn’t really register yet that I was one of the veterans of the team.
“But I still feel young, motivated to do better and to improve myself, and go after the highest of heights. We’ll see if I can do that.”
Yates is virtually the only marquee climber in the WorldTour who started racing in January this year. Some of his Tour rivals got rolling in Europe in February, sparing themselves the long-haul flights, while two-time yellow jersey winner and omnipresent protagonist Pogačar isn’t set to debut until Strade Bianche in March.
But the two races in Australia and Saudi Arabia are connected to his team’s title sponsors – Ryan’s Jayco caravan company and Alula, once a home to the Nabateans and now an evolving tourism destination. Yates was presented as a face - if not the face - of the squad he’s embarking on his 10th year with, clean-cut, eloquent, and expected not just to participate but to win.
At the Tour Down Under the team came up short. Its strategy in some of the sprint stages with Caleb Ewan, who like Groenewegen would abandon early due to illness, was admirable but also questionable. The entire team amassing at the front of the peloton for a bunch sprint with 10-15 kilometres to go, for example, signaled intent but hasn’t really been a successful approach since the early 2010s, when Millennials sporting skinny jeans and side parts were cool, not the subject of TikTok mockery.
Yates’ opportunity there came on the last two stages where sprinters made way for climbers, with finishes to Willunga Hill and Mount Lofty. He was in the mix but noticed the verve of younger rivals, either brand spanking or relatively new to cycling’s top-tier.
Simon Yates attacks on Willunga Hill at the 2024 Tour Down Under (Zac Williams/SWPix)
“I’m not 100 per cent, it’s too early for that, and if you ever have such a high peak now you would need a break earlier than the Ardennes,” Yates said.
“But it is difficult. You see that, on Willunga, the stage there, my numbers were through the roof, and I turned around and there is 10 blokes still there. Normally if I do those numbers there would be one guy.
“It’s great for the sport,” Yates continued. “You’re seeing so much more exciting racing. Of course, it makes it harder for us old blokes now to get results but you’re seeing so much young, fresh talent, who also, they take so much more risk in racing, they don’t have any pressures to win, and that creates a proper racing dynamic.
“Hopefully they get tired though.”
Pressure to win
The 31-year-old was the only rider from the team at the Tour Down Under to make the trip to Saudi Arabia and the Alula Tour, which afforded climbers one opportunity on the last day. But from day one he felt the pressure to win.
The Tour Down Under is always of importance to Yates’ team. The squad generally approaches the WorldTour opener like it is theirs to lose, even when it isn’t. But the Alula Tour was something else, and generally spoke to the inherent importance of and reliance upon sponsorship in cycling. Everyone who was anyone to the team seemed to be in Saudi Arabia for it. From Ryan, to general manager Brent Copeland, senior adviser Darach McQuaid, representatives from bike sponsor, Giant, Alula brass, not to mention Saudi royalty. The Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the company behind the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, even sent out a full complement, from CEO Yann Le Moenner, to cycling director Christian Prudhomme.
Speaking to a small group of journalists before the start of the Alula Tour, Yates had been led by their questions, focusing on the Tour de France, his changed perspective on bike racing, small margins, and being a one-team man, who is off contract at the end of this year.
But on the last stage of the race Yates’ mind was focused on immediate success, the pressure around it he admitted not exactly enjoyable.
Ryan passed on the comforts of VIP hospitality to be in the team car for the stage. He watched as Yates became part of a select group of four, including neo-pro William Junior Lecerf (Soudal–Quick-Step), Finn Fisher-Black and his UAE Team Emirates teammate Rafał Majka, that sprinted for line and race title honours on the flat road following a decisive climb, which featured gradients up to 17.1 per cent, within the last 15 kilometres.
“I just said to him there’s more pressure here today than at the Tour de France,” Ryan said with a laugh.
“He said, ‘Why is that?’ I said, ‘We’ve got to win for our sponsors.’”
Yates won the stage but initially believed he was second on general classification. He did two TV interviews, the second confirming he was the winner overall on bonus seconds, but even after that questioned the result.
“Someone confirm that for real, I don’t believe [it],” Yates remarked off-camera.
The win was as much a relief as it was a celebration for the Briton. “It was difficult. Even from the start of the race I was feeling the pressure to perform here,” Yates said.
“I think once we hit the climb everyone was watching me. I tried to shake them at first but couldn’t get rid of them, and actually they were stronger than me towards the top, so I switched to just looking for the stage at that point and managed to pull it off. And with a bit of luck in the placings, I’ve managed to take the overall.”
Ryan embraced Yates so tightly past the finish line that he lifted his lithe frame almost completely off the high stool he was sat on.
The Alula Tour was a must-win race for Yates' team (Pauline Ballet/ASO)
“This time last year we said we’ll come back with our best sprinter and also our best climber. So, we planned this 12 months ago,” Ryan added. “It’s great to be here, to win for our sponsor, who two-and-a-half years ago believed in this team, so it’s a great way to give back by winning the tour.”
Small things add up
Yates understands the value of a dollar in cycling. He makes a link between it and performance when assessing his run at the Tour de France last year, attributing “two bad days” partly to a difference in budget and resources compared with “super-teams”.
“…Those days I said I had a bad day … the first day I was not able to get any bidons from the side of the car for 50 kilometres, whereas other teams they have staff on the side of the road every 10 kilometres to give out bottles, but I’m waiting 50k,” Yates said.
“It takes its toll. I lost time that day and I paid for it the next day. It was lucky I had a rest day, then I bounced back with a great performance in the TT, and then on the queen stage to Courchevel I was second and almost won the stage.
“Even other teams they come with a soigneur for every rider, you know, so then you go to dinner earlier, you go to bed earlier. You do that over the three weeks, and it makes a difference,” Yates continued.
“These are the small things. I’m talking about one percenters, less than one percenters, but they all add up.”
Yates turned pro with an incarnation of Jayco-Alula in 2014 and has stayed loyal to the team since then. Previously he’s focused on title assaults at the Giro d’Italia and stages at the Tour but is changing tact.
“Until last year my bro’s best result was fourth,” Yates said.
“I was also fourth last year, [in 2017] I was seventh, so I don’t have that bad a record when I ride GC. A lot of the time I would also do the Giro for GC and come to the Tour for stages, so in that regard I’m still learning the ropes a little bit. I know I’m getting old now, but the Tour is a different beast I think compared to the other Grand Tours. Hopefully with a bit more experience, another year of riding GC at the Tour, I can use that going forward.”
Yates this year is set to enter the Tour on the back of training, not racing, in a bid to achieve his goal, with the support cast to be split between him and Groenewegen.
“When I go away for training camp, I always come down flying. Normally when I go to a race, I just get more tired. In past years I come down [from altitude] for the warm-up race and have better form there than my actual target. So last year we sat down and said why don’t we go straight from training camp to the Tour,” he said.
The freedom to train as he wants and target what he wants is one of the factors that has kept Yates at the squad. When asked if he’d ever considered transferring to a “super-team” he anticipated there would likely be a tradeoff.
“I’ve never had the opportunity so far, no one has come searching,” Yates said.
“I would never say no to that, but I’m also very happy where I am. I get a lot of freedom from other things in my life; training camps and stuff like that. I get to organise my own so I can go away with family and take my dog and live a relatively normal life. And when I go away, I’m very professional. I’ve never come down from a training camp at altitude going badly. I enjoy getting away and really concentrating on that. In that regard, why would I change when I have those sort of freedoms?
“I still feel completely part of the team and we have a great understanding about one another so I’m not searching to change.”
Having conquered an insurmountable early season mission, Yates’ attention now turns to the Tour. He’ll face Pogačar and test new equipment at Strade Bianche “because there’s a gravel stage of the Tour” and is down to compete at Tirreno-Adriatico, too.
“I would prefer to do Paris-Nice but there’s not enough time to get there so I’ll do Tirreno, which I’ve already won before, which is why I want to get to Paris-Nice if that makes sense. Then I’ll have a bit of a break, do Basque Country, and then I’ll do the Ardennes,” he said.
Early season races tend to be forgotten come March, but the pressure under which Yates managed to succeed in Alula may make even cycling’s biggest and most stressful bike race feel like a holiday.
Cover image by Pauline Ballet/ASO