Will defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome find himself with a peculiar sense of déjà vu in July?
During the Giro d’Italia, Froome had a huge tussle with talented young Briton Simon Yates, battling his compatriot over the three weeks, trailing behind him for the first two weeks but, ultimately, prevailing.
A similar scrap is expected at the Tour with another Mitchelton-Scott GC contender. This time it will be Yates’ twin brother Adam who will be doing the attacking. And while they are two different individuals, there are strong similarities there.
The duo have obvious parallels in terms of appearance, but the same can be said about their competitive attributes and aggressive racing. Both are punchy climbers; both are well able to shake things up and chase big results.
Time will tell if Froome takes a fifth Tour title. If he doesn’t, and if Yates plays a role in that, the Team Sky rider may end up having regrets about his six-week skirmishes with two members of the same family.
If he tires before Paris, that double-whammy may be the big factor.
“We will see, won’t we?” Yates said on Friday, when asked by CyclingTips if aiming for the Giro/Tour double could prove too much. “Other riders have tried the Giro and the Tour in the past, and they have come up short. I believe it is a tricky one to manage. It is hard to say.
“At the end of the day, he is still Chris Froome, he has still won a lot of bike races, hasn’t he? You can never rule him out. You have just to take advantage when you can, as with everyone.”
It has been a full 20 years since a rider was last able to win both races in the same season. Many have tried since Marco Pantani, but on every occasion they have been unable to hold the same form across the two competitions. One of Froome’s biggest concerns will be residual fatigue from recent racing.
In contrast, Yates believes he’s had a very good build-up. He’s fit and fresh, and sounds confident.
Now 25, Yates has been in solid form all year. He was a stage winner and fifth overall in Tirreno-Adriatico, then took fourth overall in both the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and the Amgen Tour of California, the latter coming after healing a broken pelvis.
He continued an upward trend in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, netting sixth and third on stages four and five, and then winning the final stage to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc. He ended the race a superb second overall, and while there are no guarantees that he has been able to build further on what he estimated then to be 90 percent of his peak form, he is upbeat.
“Training has been going good,” he told journalists during a pre-Tour conference call. “I am feeling good. At the moment everything is falling into place. But training is a lot different to racing. You never actually know until you race.
“I came out of Dauphine really well. Every stage I felt like I was getting better and better. It is just a matter of concentrating every day and looking after myself throughout the stages. We have got nine pretty much flat stages before the mountains.
“So I have just got to look after myself, the team has got to look after me, and then we will see what happens.”
“We all know what we are doing”
Yates already has experience shining at the Tour. Two years ago, at just 23, he was second overall for several days, and ultimately finished fourth overall in Paris. He was just 21 seconds behind third-placed Nairo Quintana, and also won the white jersey as best young rider.
Since then he has continued to build experience, deciding with his team to miss last year’s Tour and instead target the three-week races in Italy and Spain. He was caught up in a crash early in the Giro, finishing ninth overall, and was a distant 34th in the Vuelta. However he won the GP Industria and Artigianato di Larciano, and was second in Milan-Turin.
His solid performances this year have in some ways shadowed brother Simon’s own progression; at 25, both riders are continuing to improve. Each are growing in maturity and experience, and each look like future Grand Tour winners.
“Obviously last year was a bit different,” Yates says, when asked how he felt things have gone for him since he took that fourth place in the Tour. “I went for the Giro-Vuelta race program. It is a little bit different, but it is just more experience. And more racing under the belt.
“Two years ago when I got fourth in the Tour, we initially weren’t targeting GC. We just kind of fell into it. We took it day by day after that. It is a little bit different going into the Tour as GC leader from the start.
“But, as I said before, it is not my first rodeo. It is not the team’s first rodeo. We all know what we are doing. We all have a job to do. We just have to make sure we do everything right from day one. That is all you can do.”
Given that Yates has been handed sole team leadership – which was decided once it was determined that Mitchelton-Scott would not bring Caleb Ewan for the field sprints – it would be understandable if Yates felt a little intimidated.
Yet the Briton is very pragmatic, very matter of fact. As he notes to the journalists interviewing him on Friday, he is by nature someone who doesn’t waste energy worrying about things. He could get uptight about the pressure as team leader but, as he sees it, what would be the point in that?
Being stressed now won’t change anything; instead, it would just waste energy he’ll need in the Tour.
To put it another way: Team leadership is logical and, because it is logical, it is also fine.
“Two years ago I was fourth,” he explains. “So I feel like I have been there and done it, a little bit. I was pretty close to a podium that year. So I have been in the thick of it in the past. I have been flying every day in Grand Tours before.
“It is not new to me, and it is not new to the team either. We have been doing it for a few years now. Not just in Grand Tours, but in weeklong stage races as well.”
He’s had time and space to progress physically. So too has the team, which has built its level year by year.
“We are always competitive,” he says. “I think every race we go to now we put a GC leader, whether it is me or Simon, Esteban or someone else like Haigy [Jack Haig] or someone else. We are experienced these days. Everyone knows they have a job to do.
“It is just about putting everything together on the day and not making any silly mistakes.”
Talking Tour tactics: avoiding mishaps, grabbing chances
Mitchelton-Scott heads to the Tour knowing that it came painfully close to winning its first Grand Tour in May. Simon Yates was the dominant rider for the first 17 stages, and only lost his grip on the Maglia Rosa with two days to go.
Some felt that he burned up too much energy during the race, attacking frequently in the mountains rather than playing things more conservatively. However, in Yates’ defence, he was also trying to build a buffer prior to the final week time trial.
Did the two brothers speak about those tactics afterwards? If so, what can Adam Yates learn from Simon’s Giro experience?
“Obviously I talk to him all the time,” he says. “But in reality, it is pretty hard to get advice about Grand Tours. Each are pretty different – you are racing against different riders on different stages in different circumstances. Again, like I said before, it is not my first rodeo. I have been fighting, myself, over three weeks. I know what I am doing. I just have make sure I make no silly mistakes. Hopefully have no bad luck, and hopefully I can do something.”
Asked as to his likely tactics, Yates doesn’t see great scope to gain time in the opening nine days. “This first week is going to be about limiting losses,” he says. “I don’t think you can win the Tour in the first nine days. But you can lose it. We are just going to have to take it on each day and try to stay out of trouble.”
There are two days which stand out as being of big importance. The first is the team time trial on Stage 3; he believes that Michelton-Scott is sufficiently strong to challenge for the win. When it is suggested to him that such a victory could propel him or a teammate into the yellow jersey, he notes that there are disadvantages to having to defend the Maillot Jaune so early in the race.
However, that said, he said that they would respect the jersey and ride to keep it, even short-term.
The other big day is the cobblestone-peppered stage to Roubaix on Stage 9. Rattling across pavé could bring big risks, and should certainly break things up; he’s respectful of the challenge, but also not fretting.
“I have ridden cobbles before,” he says. “I raced quite a lot under 23 and amateur on the cobbles. So it is not my first time.
“I reconned the stage not long ago with Matty Hayman. Obviously he knows what he is doing. So he gave me some tips and stuff like that. At the end of the day, it is not just me…there are a lot of other skinny climbers like me who are going to suffer. But I have got a super-strong team around me. I have got a lot of big guys who can look after me.”
Once past that stage, things should become more and more interesting. The high mountains will loom, and the shape of the final general classification will start to form.
“There are going to be a lot of tricky stages,” he predicts. “There are a lot of short, punchy mountain stages which suit me. And not just me, it suits riders who have a bit of punch and aren’t afraid to just throw it down.”
However he is mindful that things may not be immediately decisive. “The Tour is usually much more controlled [than other big races],” he points out. “It is going to be tricky, but again you have just got to take it day by day.
“It is not like you can pinpoint one or two stages where you can gain a lot of time. It is more about picking up seconds here, picking up seconds there. All of a sudden you have got a chunk of time you can do something with. We’ve just got to take it day by day, and see what happens.”
The last time Yates did the Tour, the team insisted that it was not worried about GC. It said that it wanted him to concentrate on stages, but things worked out well for the overall. This time around, he is much more front and centre. He’s the team’s sole leader, and he’s also being talked about as a genuine contender. That could be stifling, but he embraces the responsibility.
“It is a big honour, really, isn’t it?” he says “The Tour de France is the biggest race in the world and to go there as leader of the team and have the team’s full backing is a big honour. There is a lot of pressure, but it is an opportunity. And we have got to take these opportunities when we can.”