As I write this, a British rider leads the Giro d’Italia – cycling’s second-most prestigious (though most fun) Grand Tour. Given the success of Team Sky in recent years, you would be forgiven for thinking the rider in question was Chris Froome. Strangely, however, it is neither Froome nor anyone else from Team Sky. Instead, it is the 25-year-old Simon Yates, a prodigiously talented rider for the Australian Mitchelton-Scott team.
A Remarkable Feat
Yates, who has gained the nickname Il Sanguinaccio Volante – aka The Flying Black Pudding – as a tribute to his Bury roots, has rocked this Giro d’Italia to the core. That he’s leading into this third week is remarkable enough, but it’s the manner of his success that has thrilled us all. Three stage wins, most notably the third, on the 176km Stage 15 to Sappada chock-full of categorised climbs where he put 41 seconds or more into the entire field, have gained headlines. Beyond that, he’s held his own in time trials to keep reigning Giro and world TT champion Tom Dumoulin at bay, as we head towards three more mountain stages that seem more suited to Yates than Dumoulin. As I write this, Simon Yates is probably going to win the 2018 Giro d’Italia.
Yates’ success is a remarkable feat. Britain has next-to-no tradition of being a cycling powerhouse. The 1960s brought the late, great Tom Simpson and then the 70s brought Barry Hoban. The 80s saw Robert Millar (now known as Phillipa York) and Sean Yates’ successes but little else. The 1990s? A few Chris Boardman time trial wins. It was only really in the 2000s that a steady stream of pro cyclists started to emerge. David Millar enjoyed some success before his doping ban, but Mark Cavendish’s multiple Grand Tour stage wins placed Britain on the cycling world map.
Still, these looked like outliers from a country indifferent to cycling, but blessed with a few stars. Powerhouses like France, Spain, and Belgium flooded the peloton, but British cyclists remained few and far between. But Simon Yates’ success is indicative of a country that is becoming a powerhouse, that has strength in depth as a pro cycling nation.
Limits to Team Sky’s influence
While I’m not going to credit Team Sky as the reason why Britain has road cycling prowess, it would be revisionist to downplay their influence. Entering the UCI WorldTour in 2010 with the aim of winning a Tour de France within five years, they have now won five in eight. The story is much-told, but to summarise: A mixture of innovative training and preparation practices, access to an untapped well of previously track-only British cycling talent, a huge budget by cycling standards, and some of the most deathly-dull-but-effective tactics have seen them dominate the Tour de France at least, and start to make inroads in the Spring Classics.
Team Sky has raised the profile of road cycling in the UK, and there are a couple of interesting things around that. The first is that untapped well of track cycling talent. Fans of the Olympics will have noted the vast array of medals racked up by the Chris Hoys and Jason Kennys of this world. I’ll come on to whether that has had the impact on cycling takeup later, but the track cycling programme has led to the development of riders, and through that development, more widers with a wide range of different physiological profiles have emerged. Someone like Chris Hoy – lightning fast on the track – doesn’t have the stamina or build to compete on the road. But there were plenty of would-be cyclists on the track who did. And many of them ended up in Team Sky. Geraint Thomas, Peter Kennaugh, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe all started on the track, for example.
I said I wasn’t going to downplay Sky, but they have developed this reputation for seeing development of many of their British riders stall as they seek success. Kennaugh’s early promise has never been fulfilled – he has left for German team Bora-Hansgrohe. Ian Stannard has become a solid domestique. Steve Cummings enjoyed great success after leaving Team Sky for South African outfit Dimension Data. There are already mumblings about the seemingly static development of the otherwise prodigious Tao Geoghegan Hart at Team Sky. And you’ll notice that neither Simon Yates nor his brother Adam signed for Team Sky.
The Yates brothers
So where did the Yates brothers come from? Other than Bury, obviously. Well, despite their being identical twins their careers have taken dizygotic paths. Simon was talent-spotted by the Olympic Academy programme for track cycling – he has a World Championship gold medal for the points race from 2013. Adam, however, made his way through the ranks in the road cycling world, with help from the Dave Rayner Fund – more of which anon. While Simon’s 2013 was notable for his WC gold, Adam finished second in the Tour de l’Avenir – think of this as the closest thing to a Grand Tour for juniors.
Both signed with Mitchelton-Scott despite interest from Team Sky and, er, FDJ for the 2014 season, and have been popping up in Grand Tour and other major week-long stage race top-10s every year since. Both have a Tour de France white jersey for best young rider in their back pocket. Both even have the odd one-day stage race win. And both have oscillated between being the most highly-considered of the two of them.
Current and Future Cyclists
To get a bit more into how British cyclists found their way to prominence, let’s look at more members of the top-tier pro peloton, and where they came from. EF-Drapac (look up the actual team name yourself) rider Hugh Carthy is another climber from the north-west, and like Adam Yates he made his way to the World Tour through less prominent routes – third-tier British team Rapha Condor-JLT and second-tier Spanish team Caja Rural-Seguros RGA specifically. Carthy’s interesting, he’s a talented climber with potential to be a super-domestique but doesn’t look like a multiple winner. He’s exactly sort of rider that countries with a strong tradition in cycling tend to produce in spades.
How about elsewhere? Carthy’s teammate Dan McLay came through second-tier French team Bretagne-Séché Environnement. At Dimension Data we’ve mentioned Steve Cummings and Mark Cavendish – their teammates Scott Thwaites and Scott Davies also came from lower-tier teams. Thwaites spent time at NetApp-Endura – then a second-tier team but now Bora-Hansgrohe. Davies came from team WIGGINS. See if you can guess who’s the brains behind them. An interesting one is James Shaw, a classics specialist who came through the youth system at Belgian hipster’s favourites Lotto-Soudal. These are a varied bunch who emerged away from the Team Sky spotlight.
Sky are still churning out British riders though. While Jon Dibben and Owain Doull haven’t yet stood out on the road, Tao Geoghegan Hart already has some World Tour top-10s, and Chris Lawless looks very promising. Though given Sky’s budget, young riders do run the risk of being overshadowed by bigger not just established names, but also top youth prospects – Egan Bernal and Pavel Sivakov have the rep here.
Is this due to track cycling?
At the risk of making the preceeding text look like 1,250 words of introductions, we should be asking why British cycling is booming. The obvious answer is, as always, a variety of factors, but one to focus on is that track cycling pedigree, coupled with the variety of physiologies of would-be cyclists.
The timing, at least, checks out. Increased investment in track cycling through the late 90s and 2000s brought a 2000 Olympic gold medal for Jason Queally and four medals including two gold in 2004. However, by 2008 Britain had become the dominant track power at Olympic games, partly through training and funding mechanisms specifically designed to target Olympic medals. But the degree to which Britain dominated Olympics was stark – 8 golds, with no other nation collecting more than 2. Did Britain scoop up 8 golds in 2012 as well? You bet they did.
We hear across all sports that where a nation begins to enjoy success, it inspires more to take it up. Sure enough, the cavalcade of track cycling Olympic medallists shows that success has bred success, as more young British riders emerge. The degree to which that drives road success? Okay, look. The track cycling programme has brought on some now-established members of the peloton. Thomas, Kennaugh, Wiggins, all gold medallists who enjoyed a lot of the work done by British Cycling to develop them. For what it’s worth, Owain Doull was also a gold medallist in 2016.
I’m not sure how much it’s track-derived inspiration that drives road success – has anyone asked Hugh Carthy if Chris Hoy’s success inspired him? Now, I’ll be more interested in how much the very youngest emerging riders have been inspired by track success – junior world cyclo-cross and TT champion Tom Pidcock has cited Mark Cavendish – someone who had road and track success – as a childhood hero.