Simon Yates never gives much away. Like Buster Keaton, his race face rarely changes from a look of blank disinterest, his eyes invariably hidden behind dark glasses. And even when he is climbing faster than anyone else on a steep mountain climb, dancing on the pedals, the pain of his effort rarely shows. So, before the start of last month’s Giro d’Italia, the words Yates used sounded positively effusive.
By John Wilcockson | Images by Chris Auld
Speaking in Turin, the leader of Team BikeExchange said, “I like so many things about the Giro: the parcours, the food, the fans. I really enjoy racing in Italy. I hope this year I can have a clear run and a good go at fighting for the win.” That optimistic outlook was confirmed by his team manager Matt White, who said, “Simon is one of the favorites going into the race and we are relishing the challenge. We have built a team around him which has a very good balance of experience and youth. The month of May can also dish up some surprises on the weather front.”
Indeed, on the stages affected by rain, Yates wouldn’t ride at his best—even though he grew up in one of the rainiest parts of England, 10 miles north of Manchester. Perhaps it was the constantly changing conditions that saw him struggle at times in the first two weeks of the Giro; also, he was well aware of how he raced belligerently though the Giro three years ago, winning three mountain stages and looking like the runaway winner until everything crumbled three days from the end.
That day, May 25, 2018, Yates, wearing the leader’s pink jersey, couldn’t respond to accelerations by Team Sky on the Colle delle Finestre that launched Chris Froome on his historic, winning 80-kilometer solo breakaway; all of Yates’ teammates stayed with him as he struggled through those 80 kilometers to finish almost 39 minutes behind his fellow Brit. Talking about that setback, one of Yates’ sports directors Lorenzo Lapage recently told L’Équipe: “He took a long time to assimilate that episode, thinking for certain that he’d conquered the Giro before that stage over the Finestre. He’s never understood what happened that day…and he’s not spoken about it since.”
Yates partly recovered from that disastrous ending in Italy by winning the Vuelta a España four months later; but when he returned to the Giro in 2019 he finished a disappointing eighth overall. “Although disappointing isn’t the right word,” he said at the time, “heartbreaking is more accurate. I put a lot of effort into this, and it has just not come together the way I was expecting. That’s okay. There’s always another Giro, another year….”
He tried again last October after winning the warm-up stage race, Tirreno-Adriatico; but in the Year of Covid-19 he tested positive for the virus and had to pull out of the Giro after a week of racing. This year, he again won his warm-up race, the five-day Tour of the Alps, and the European media made him and Egan Bernal their overwhelming favorites to win the 104th Giro.
The well-balanced set of riders that Team BikeExchange’s White described included Estonian veteran Tanel Kangert, riding his ninth Giro; Spanish climber Mikel Nieve (his seventh); Dane Chris Juul-Jensen and Aussies Michael Hepburn and Cameron Meyer (their sixth); Yates (his fourth); and first-timer Aussies Callum Scotson and Nick Schultz.
The Giro is doubly important to the Australian team because it now has an Italian bike manufacturer (Bianchi) as well as Italian-made clothing (by Giordana). And because of the new title sponsor, Giordana completely redesigned the team’s kit this year. The jerseys feature a white chest panel that, besides BikeExchange, has the names of sub-sponsors Jayco, Bianchi and Giordana, along with the UCI’s WorldTeam logo. The panel transitions downward into an array of BikeExchange logos, gray on white, with Bianchi-celeste colors on the hips; the shoulder panels are black with celeste bands around the biceps. The black bib shorts have a single celeste cuff on the right thigh.
Those elegant outfits barely showed at the front of the Giro in the opening week; in fact, BikeExchange first made it into the news cycle when a team car, driven by assistant sports director Gene Bates, inadvertently knocked Lotto-Soudal rider Pieter Serry off his bike on the climb to the stage 6 summit finish—it looked bad, but the Belgian rider accepted Bates’ later apology. At that stage finish, on a damp, windy afternoon, Yates took an anonymous 11th place, which moved him into the top 10 on GC for the first time. Afterward, a lack-luster Yates commented, “The Giro has been challenging from these ever-changing conditions and it looks set to continue that way.”
On the first rest day, Yates’ performance after 10 stages was said to be “prudent,” his modest ninth place overall perhaps explained by not wanting to repeat those errors of 2018 when he blew up on the Finestre after leading the Giro for 13 days. Yates was apprehensive about stage 11, the one that featured four long sections of Tuscany’s gravel roads—and as preparation he wisely raced this spring’s Strade Bianche classic to get a real taste of the white roads. “It is not my favorite terrain,” he said at the stage finish in Montalcino after his teammates Kangert, Schultz and Nieve helped him take a solid 15th place that moved him up to fifth overall. “Riding Strade Bianche was very valuable and doing the recon…helped me a lot today.”
Three days later, the peloton faced their first stage in the high mountains of northern Italy, with the feared summit finish on Monte Zoncolan. Yates was superb, exploding the group of GC favorites on the ultra-steep finale that only Bernal could respond to. “I had better legs than the first week,” Yates said after moving up to second overall. “Bernal showed he had great legs again today; it is going to be tough to beat him, but we will try to take the jersey.” Teammate Nieve, who also rode with Yates in 2018, noted, “I think that Simon has learned from his mistakes…. He certainly has a spirit of revenge.”
But his bid to win the 2021 Giro effectively ended on the next mountain stage, the one that was shortened by 57 kilometers and two high passes because of torrential rain and freezing temperatures. Yates didn’t blame the weather for a below-par ride, after he was dropped by the Bernal group 8 kilometers from the summit of the final climb, conceded more than two minutes to his main rivals and fell to fifth on GC. At Cortina d’Ampezzo, where the second rest day was held, Yates said this about his bad day: “Not what I was looking for, but I did my best. The victory is a bit far away now.” But team manger White was still optimistic, saying, “You have to manage your bad days; they are just as important as managing your good days.
And Yates did have a few more good days. But not good enough to win the Giro.
On the stage after the rest day, despite losing Schultz with a broken hand after he crashed while helping chase the day’s early breakaway, Team BikeExchange set up Yates for the climb to the summit finish at Sega di Ala. When he made his move with 4 kilometers to go, all the GC contenders were in trouble, including Bernal. “I attacked and I didn’t realize Egan was dropped until a bit later,” Yates reported. “I was already going full gas so it wasn’t like then I could accelerate any more to try and increase the gap.”
He didn’t win the stage—that went to breakaway rider Dan Martin—but he did gain almost a minute on Bernal and runner-up Damiano Caruso, and two or more minutes on the other podium-seekers. “I hope the weather stays like this,” Yates added. “Every day it has rained I have not had a good day, so hopefully the weather stays the same and we will see what I can do.”
Two days later, again in bright sunshine and on a similar mountaintop finish at Alpe di Mera, Yates’ surging acceleration saw him drop Bernal and company once more; and this time he won the stage. “It was a very difficult final climb…and I just tried to ride full gas. And that was it,” he said about an outstanding stage win that cemented his place on the final podium.
Speaking in Milan after sharing that podium with Bernal and Caruso, Yates was as effusive as he was at the start in Turin three weeks earlier. “I have no regrets,” he said. “Those guys showed day in, day out that they were better, so I can only be proud of what I accomplished. I did my best on every stage and sometimes you have to deal with bad days and bad moments and that is how you go on to win the race. Egan did that successfully on numerous days. The days in the cold, the body didn’t respond as well as I wanted it to, but that is one of those things. I love Italy and I’ll come back to try to win pink.”
Yup. Team BikeExchange leader Simon Yates still has some unfinished business….