it's all about the bike. sean yates. bantam press hardback. 312pp illus. £18.99

sean yates - it's all about the bike

i have aspirations to remain as topical as i can, thus review copies of books are generally read in as timeous a manner as possible. but something i hadn't considered until this sunday afternoon past, was just how topical my review might become. having watched the majority of the 2013 world championship road race from tuscany, i was wont to vent at least a portion of my disappointment on twitter.

for with still a substantial number of kilometres remaining, the entire british team had abandoned and were presumably checking flight times and undulging in online check-in before rui costa had crossed the finish line to bring the stripey jumper to portugal ahead of spain's joaquin rodriguez. a brief interview with chris froome, britain's team leader elicited the memorable quote "i just wasn't feeling it today."

there's no denying that, until the last few laps, the weather conditions were considerably less than pristine; cold and wet seems to have been the general consensus. but though 'tis easy for armchair critics such as myself to rail against professional riders who wimp out because their tan lines will not be getting any crisper over the course of 200 plus kilometres, i think it only right and proper to point an elbow towards the word 'professional'. there are many of us who endure far worse in our attempts to cover rapha's festive 500' each year, and simply for fun.

sean yates has a fine reputation as one of cycling's hard men, seemingly content to ride on the front of the peloton for hours at a time, no matter the weather conditions because that's principally what his team paid him to do. but of primary importance in this instance, it seems it had far more to do with the fact that he rather enjoyed doing so. putting the hurt on others. it would be hard to think of yates as one for seeking the shelter of the team bus had he been riding in tuscany yesterday.

as brian smith is quoted as saying from his time with yates at motorola "Hennie Kuiper paired us up for an intervals session. I was thinking, 'Please not Yatesy, please not Yatesy', as I expect everyone was... we had to do twenty seconds all out, each three times, rest two minutes, then repeat. Nobody wanted to be paired with him; he used to love that kind of shit more than anything, more than winning races, I suspect."

however, though yates is remembered for his exploits on the bike throughout his racing career, latterly he had confined his abilities to the driving seat of a team sky jaguar, acting as a directeur sportif. promotion to the number one position arrived after scott sunderland jumped before he was pushed, following a rather tentative yet seemingly arrogant first season for the upstart british team. the book opens at the end, so to speak, with yates recounting his departure from the world's number one cycle team in the wake of sir dave's reiteration of sky's zero-tolerance stance over any form of drug use by riders or staff members.

he precedes this dubious debacle by recounting in chapter one, just how he guided sir wiggo to the first british yellow jersey in the tour de france, aided and abetted by second place for chris froome. the constrast surely has to be deliberate, for chapter one ends with the phrase "We're going to win the Tour de France."

six pages later..."The United States Anti-Doping Agency released their report into their investigation of Lance Armstrong. Though I wasn't named in the damning report, for some people my long friendship and working relationship with Lance meant guilt by association."

sir dave brailsford, rightly or wrongly told him "...that he was finding it more and more difficult to protect me from the fallout from the stories about Lance. He said that he was constantly having to justify my presence on the team." seen in this light, and yates' later contention that brailsford found it hard to deal with confrontation, there's no doubt that reader sympathies may side with the man robert millar referred to as 'the big yin'.

however, yates does not necessarily do himself any favours when the subject of armstrong is broached later in the book, displaying uncharacteristic naivety and leaving himself open to accusations of double-standards. "Say what you will about Lance, make your own mind up about being stripped of those titles for doping, I won't ever be dissuaded from my opinion that his seven Tour de France victories after recovering from cancer is the greatest achievement our sport has ever seen." the basis for this testimony is one that has seen use by others; that sean doesn't believe any of lance's rivals were preparing any differently.

yet only a few chapters later, when discussing the giro d'italia of 2008 "There was some serious shit going down at that Giro. Teams who had been creeping all year were suddenly firing guys off up the road every minute of the day in a manner I would term 'not normal.'" Justifiable if you were winning seven successive tours, deplorable if others were winning by similar means.

however, though others as well as I have brought the subject to your attention, the armstrong affair truly occupies a very small bit of a rather excellent book. i'm also keen to applaud the modern-day practice of acknowledging the writers who have effectively penned riders' 'autobiographies' based on an endless series of interviews. there are few individuals from the peloton who are accomplished writers, and it seems a far better notion to hand over the narrative and grammatical duties to someone who does so for a living. in yates' case, that man is john deering whose previous connection with yates would most likely be through his recounting the story of an abortive linda mccartney team.

additionally, yates has enlisted the assistance of many of those he rode with during his career, one that stretched from amateur at athletic club de boulogne-billancourt (acbb), through peugeot, fagor, seven-eleven and motorola, all of whom seem happy to provide pithy quotes attesting to the man's fortitude in the face of cycling adversity. if i have one qualm regarding these literary domestiques it is the seamless manner in which they are inserted into the main narrative. i for one would have been grateful if they had been printed in italics, for it is sometimes difficult to distinguish whose words are whose.

perhaps the only example where this proves a tad embarrassing is his conversation with johan bruyneel, and not for any reasons attached to the latter's subsequent culpability in the armstrong case. where the majority of interviewees appear to be addressing the book's readers, bruyneel's is presented as if we are eavesdropping on their conversation. a bit like dragging your fingernails down a blackboard.

perhaps the finest example of yates' intention to leave no stone unturned in his career, whether unpalatable or otherwise, is his turning over the whole of chapter thirteen to his former wife, pippa yates. i can't think of too many individuals willing to accept that level of clarity, no matter how civilised the current arrangement. he also pulls no punches over his serious health issues with his heart. a sufferer of arrhythmia (where the heart lapses into beating almost at half pace), you just know that a man of lesser constitution would never have made it as far as a published autobiography.

sean yates, despite having worn the tour's yellow jersey in his career and achieved other notable victories, is likely more remembered for his tenacity in driving the peloton on behalf of his various designated team leaders. perhaps it wouldn't be overstating his case to refer to yates as possibly the first of the super domestiques. either way, deering and yates have produced an eminently readable book, well illustrated and indexed, and providing an excellent and at times entertaining insight into the british rider's career.

it's a story that well worth reading.

monday 30th september 2013