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The Curious Case of Simon Yates and the Perception of Cycling in Britain

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Yates wins at Gran Sasso

This is a story about the story cycling in the UK tells about itself. You’ve heard a lot of it before, and the history is not my interest here. Read Chris Sidwells for the authorised version or Tim Hilton for the more entertaining version. In brief, we’re told, British cycling was insular and parochial, and focused on social riding or on hill climbs and long, solo, point-to-point efforts. There was the schism that produced the British League of Road Cyclists. There was Tom Simpson, who begat Obree and Boardman, and way down in Manchester they begat Brailsford and all those Olympic medals. The Olympians begat Team Sky and the Tour wins and the Grand Departs in London and Yorkshire. Now Britain, Sidwells concludes, rules the cycling world.

This is a lucid argument. Track cycling is routinely televised in this country, something unthinkable before the deluge of medals (and, to be fair, the advent of “red button” technology on terrestrial TV). Many newspapers carry coverage of cycling year-round, not just for the Tour, and there are BBC radio shows and podcasts dedicated to the sport. The growth of cycling lanes, of clubs for cycling and for triathlon, and of bike shops speak to a higher level of involvement, as well as engagement. Cycling is moving towards the mainstream.

Tour de Yorkshire: The fans do turn out for road racing
Corbis via Getty Images

Not in the mainstream yet

I don’t think that professional road cycling fits as neatly into this narrative as the cheerleaders would have you believe. In fact, I think we may have reached saturation point for interest in professional cycling in the UK, and the next two weeks of Simon Yates’ life will be the test case. I’m going to limit myself to talking about the men’s side of the sport here, because otherwise a long article would become an epic.

In saying all this, I’m reminded of my favourite hipster jokes (How many hipsters does it take to change a lightbulb? Oh, it’s a very obscure number, you wouldn’t have heard of it. Why did the hipster burn himself on the coffee? He was drinking it before it was cool). I don’t want to be the sports fan who resents new interest in his chosen sport. Indeed, I welcome it. As someone who doesn’t like football/soccer (I don’t hate it, I just think the low number of goals means that results are frequently false, and I really don’t like attitudes of the majority of the players in the top leagues) but enjoys horse racing, American football, and Aussie Rules, I’m used to following niche sports, and finding or converting fellow-travellers is a joy.

I’ve spoken to a lot of people about cycling in this country, and the narrative above fits much better for track cycling and participatory cycling than for professional road cycling. It isn’t easy to persuade people to give up much of their weekend to watching bike races. Some of the blocks to fandom I’ve come across:

  • I don’t have Eurosport and I never know when races are on ITV4.
  • I don’t have the time.
  • I watch the highlights of the Tour but there’s too many other races.
  • They’re all druggies.
  • I like Team Sky/Wiggins but I’m not bothered about the rest of the sport.
  • Chris Froome’s a bit of a dick.

Here’s the thing. Those are all pretty good arguments. My wife’s a legit sports fan with the patience to watch test cricket. She finds road cycling pretty difficult to follow because of all the jerseys, the huge cast of characters, the uniformly awful commentary and the sheer time it takes. If she didn’t have the misfortune of sharing her house with me, she’d watch the Tour highlights, maybe. She certainly wouldn’t be watching the Giro. There’s a high tariff on entry to this sport and there’s been a complacency in assuming people will pay it.

Crossover appeal: Cav at Sports Personality
WireImage

Road cycling got thrown into the mix with track cycling, I think, for a couple of reasons. First, the number of “crossover stars” the UK produced. It is easy to sell watching Wiggo on the road, or Cav, or even G, because you’ve seen them on the track and you remember then winning medals. Second, they were interesting guys. Brad turned up with stupid hair and started making jokes on the podium as our first Tour winner. Cav had the temper and the model wife getting into twitter fights. They were larger than life and interesting off the bike as well as wildly successful on it. Both won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. However flawed a metric, this serves as an indicator of public engagement with riders. Chris Hoy won it, too, the first time a cyclist had done so since Tom Simpson back in 1965.

Chris Froome and declining interest

Then came Chris Froome’s years. He never attends the event, since it clashes with his offseason training. His satellite-delayed interviews add a level of awkwardness to already stilted conversations. His accent (defiantly not British, in a nation still supremely sensitive to such things) shines out. Last year, he won two Grand Tours. British sport didn’t have a great year, but he was up against a boxer, a motorcyclist, a runner, a Paralympic runner (whose prominence was partly due to celebrity ballroom dancing), an F1 driver and a swimmer. They all beat him. He finished ahead of four women (this is a totally different topic, but what on earth is wrong with us as a nation?) – a cricketer, speed-skater, tennis player and taekwondoist – as well as a male football player.

Even the Chris Froome fan club would accept he’s a less interesting interview than the stars who preceded him, and he’s also perceived as foreign, I think, and a cheat, I think. Certainly the vote (just after the story broke about his ban) was ill-timed from his perspective. I’m not here to relitigate the case of Froome vs the Court of Public Opinion, but I think he represents a pressing issue. He’s not been taken to heart by British fans, in my opinion. Is this because of the foreign/cheat/boring arguments above? In part – but I think it would be foolish to assume that Cav or Wiggo are the baseline, and Froome the anomaly. A typical star, if such a thing is possible, is likely to fall somewhere between the two.

What of Simon Yates?

As I write this on the eve of the Zoncolan stage, Simon Yates has pulled on the pink jersey and accepted the podium girl’s kisses eight times. For good measure, he’s won two stages and is the leader in the mountain classification. There’s a long way to go, but the 25 year old has been the best rider of the race so far. Every cycling fan knew he was good. I don’t think many expected him to be winning this race. As he makes the leap to genuine grand tour contender, he is making the leap to stardom.

This is when the narrative gets written.

Simon Yates is an intriguing canvas on which to draw. There’s the easy stuff – he’s a twin, and his brother is on the same team. No, they’re not identical (just confusingly similar). No, they don’t ride the same races (but they’re quite similar) and they don’t have the same skills (though they are, you guessed it, quite similar). That’s been the line for a while now, and I’m as guilty of it as most of us.

The Yates boys back in the Avenir days
Getty Images

Then there’s the more complicated stuff. What about the move away from British Cycling? Did they really want one brother and not the other? Ah, but the boys got different agents and aren’t, perhaps, a package deal. Maybe Sky weren’t that interested. Why not? Equally, maybe the riders just made an unemotional decision to go where they had opportunities and good development support.

The drug stuff is complicated, too, but there’s no doubt some people want it to be in the narrative. They always do, with cyclists, and here he is, the new British star with a juicy drugs ban to rake over. That’s got to be worth something… maybe that’s why he got to be so good, despite not having the talent to get onto the British Cycling scheme. Maybe that’s why he’s better than his brother? Hey, I didn’t say all the narratives were grounded in reality.

He’s boring. That’s another narrative, and that one’s nonsense, too. He’s quite funny, really, in a self-depreciating sort of way. He’s only twenty-five but he’s got a voice and he’s willing to stick his neck out on occasion.

Since it really is just talk, and we all know life is too nuanced for a tweet, why does this narrative matter so much to me? Because two weeks ago, every mainstream media story on the Giro ran a headline saying “X wins stage x, Froome in Xth”. Now, they say “X wins stage x, Yates still in pink.” When it was Wiggo, people watched and cared. When it was Froome (and it might be again) they didn’t. Yates? The jury is still out.

Reasons to be cheerful, reasons to be worried

If cycling is to grow in the UK we’ll need more fans to care about results all year round, not just at the Tour. We’ll need more fans to care about more than British riders, and certainly more than Sky riders. We’ll need more fans who understand the sport’s traditions and quirks and can absorb the calendar and all the myriad complications of cycling fandom. That’s a long road.

The short cut, as we found with Wiggins, is to use a superstar to bring the crowds in. Simon Yates is on the cusp of becoming the next British road cycling star. If (and it is a big if) he can win the Giro, here are two mainstream narratives:

  • A boring rider with a previous drugs conviction won an Italian race in which Chris Froome underperformed. Team Sky didn’t have a rider in the top-10, but Froome will be back for the Tour. He, Geraint Thomas and the rest of Team Sky takes on the twin brother of the Italian winner, who rides for an Australian team.
  • Twenty-five-year-old Simon Yates won the second-most prestigious race in cycling, against a field containing Froome and several other major race winners. He’s the first rider born in the UK to win a Grand Tour and the first Briton to win the Giro. He and his twin brother fought their way to the top of the sport without the support of Team Sky and ride for the international Mitchelton-Scott squad. Adam Yates will be a contender for the Tour and Simon can be expected to compete for the Tour soon.

They’re both true, in broad terms. The second will undoubtedly pull people towards the sport, and the first won’t. With Team Sky’s future rocky, the UK may find itself without a “national team” narrative familiar to fans of football, rugby and cricket. Wiggins has moved onto rowing (both in the boat sense and the arguing sense) and the careers of Cavendish and Froome may be waning, and are certainly nearer the end than the beginning.

The future is bright, on the bike at least. Tao Geoghan Hart, Tom Piddock (if he focuses on the road), James Knox, Owain Doull, James Shaw and Stephen Williams are among the many who could become stars. Adam Yates, with his Tour White Jersey and win in San Sebastian, is well on the way. Simon Yates, though, is there. Apart from the riding, he’s a good looking lad, media-savvy and has the no-nonsense approach and flat vowels of England’s industrial north.

I can picture a world in which his success is celebrated, and time and space is taken to put it into proper context. I can picture a world in which a positive narrative emerges and Britain takes another step towards embracing cycling as a major sport. I don’t think that’s what will happen, though. I think his success, and the Giro, will be dismissed as an irrelevant side-story, and the continued soap opera of Froome, Brailsford and the fall of the House of Team Sky will be the real cycling story for the average sports fan in the UK.

That headline, by the way, isn’t my attempt to be provocative. It is the question that I was asked by a colleague when I mentioned Simon Yates. The fight for mainstream recognition isn’t won yet.