Simon Yates: I want to try to take it to these super teams
Brit continuing his early season at the AlUla Tour, as he takes aim at the Tour de France podium
Racing News Editor
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Simon Yates got his season underway at the Santos Tour Down Under
Look at the startlists for the Santos Tour Down Under and the AlUla Tour, and you won’t find many riders who are also aiming at the general classification in the Tour de France. Modern logic would say January is too early to start your season if you’re working towards July, and these sprint-heavy races don’t look like the best targets for Tour hopefuls.
The anomaly to that rule, however, is Simon Yates (Jayco AlUla). Last year’s fourth-placed finisher in Paris has started his season early once again, as is about to take on the AlUla Tour straight off the back of the Tour Down Under.
As a team backed by the region, it’s perhaps no surprise to see Jayco AlUla fielding a strong and ambitious team in Saudi Arabia, with Dylan Groenewegen and a strong sprinting stable joining Yates. The British rider is also no stranger to racing being shaped by sponsor commitments - he ended 2023 in Taiwan, the home of Giant, and started 2024 at ‘home’ in Australia - but that doesn’t mean he won’t take those races seriously.
“That comes with the territory,” Yates told GCN - in a Jayco caravan dealership - just before the Tour Down Under.
“I've been in the sport long enough to understand what goes on, and I just try to do my best there. I'm actually looking forward to starting the season. I enjoyed starting the season last year here, there is a lot of pressure here as well and I assume also once we get to Saudi Arabia, so we'll see how that goes, but I'm just looking forward to getting stuck in.”
The Tour Down Under didn’t go as planned for Jayco or Yates, with the team failing to win a stage and their leader settling for sixth overall after struggling to make the difference on the climbs, but Saudi Arabia represents another goal, with stage 5 to Harrat Uwayrid set to decide the race.
“If we can make the climbs hard enough, we can sort of sway it in my direction, into a climber's direction, so we'll see,” Yates said. “We're going with a very sprint-heavy line-up, as well, so I won't have much support, so we'll see how that works.
“There's a lot of the sprinting team, and they'll be really concentrating on their stages. I think off the top of my head it's only the one stage that's really hard, so I'll have to work out [how to approach that].”
A tried-and-tested route to the Tour de France
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Simon Yates finished fourth in the Tour de France in 2023
Though the AlUla Tour itself may be far from a preparation race for the Tour de France, it’s all part of a July-centered pathway for Simon Yates. After the AlUla Tour, he’ll likely race Tirreno-Adriatico over Paris-Nice, Itzulia Basque Country, a possible tilt at the Ardennes, and then altitude training ahead of the Tour de France.
It’s a similar programme to what the 31-year-old did in 2023, when he recorded his best-ever Tour de France result, and will see him focus his attention on France once again, rather than the Giro d’Italia or Vuelta a España.
“I think we're going to run a similar programme, maybe a little bit different,” he explained. “Last year I was doing these really big blocks and I went all the way to Romandie but I ended up having to pull out with illness. I'm going to the Ardennes which is sort of similar, and the plan as of right now is that I'll just do a really big altitude block [before the Tour] which is what I did last year, and what has always worked for me.”
That programme certainly did work in 2023, with Yates finishing fourth and nearly winning a stage on more than one occasion. Though the Giro d’Italia has traditionally been more fertile ground for the climber, and the Grand Tour he’s often prioritised in recent years, Yates has chosen to skip a return to Italy and pick the Tour for 2024.
Read more: Tour de France 2024 route revealed
“I think the Giro course is actually quite good for me this year, and I love racing there. For me, the Tour is always a bit of a circus, a bit of a show, but the Giro is really racing and that's what cycling is all about. So in that regard, it's hard to not go back to the Giro because I love racing there, but the Tour is the Tour, a cliché but it's the pinnacle of the sport.”
According to Yates, that best-ever result and almost-podium in 2023 was not a sign to consider the Tour ticked off and return to the Giro or the Vuelta, where he is a former winner, but rather an indication that he still has more to give in France.
“I was so close,” he said of the 2023 Tour. “It depends how you look at it: it was a great success - I did a really good ride, the numbers were huge, but I was also so close to being even better. I was second on two stages and relatively close to the podium as well. So it could have been more of a success, but that keeps me hungry and I want to go back and do better than last year.”
He may be in the later years of his career, but the motivation or commitment doesn’t seem to be waning for Yates, and the chance of finishing top three in the Tour de France also offers the possibility of a very special achievement and an extra accolade in the history books.
“If I manage to pull that off, get a podium at the Tour, then I'll have podiumed in every Grand Tour,” he pointed out. “There's not many riders in the peloton who can say that. It's really motivating to try and do that. I had only two bad, or relatively bad, days at the Tour last year, which is also pretty good for me, and I managed them well when it did happen. So I'm just really trying to improve and keep going with what I was doing there, and hopefully I can go one better.”
Taking on the super teams
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Simon Yates was often the rider attacking the likes of Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard in last year's Tour de France
Even if Yates arrives to the Tour in top form as he’s hoping to, there’s still a lot standing in between him and the podium, not just a tough course but some very tough opposition too. Jayco AlUla in all their guises have never really been a big GC team, but that gap to the top is getting even bigger as teams like Visma-Lease a Bike and UAE Team Emirates build stronger and stronger stage racing squads.
“You have to in a way,” Yates said when asked if the team sees themselves as underdogs. “And not even just in the big races, you go to any smaller race now and these super teams field a team that could win stages in Grand Tours, podium in Grand Tours, and that's just a really small race that's not really important.
“It's getting harder and harder to be competitive in those races and to give opportunities to younger guys too. When I was younger I also had a lot of opportunities in these smaller races, to be the leader and to learn how to do that, but when you come up against these strong teams who can dominate the race and throw five or six guys to the front, it becomes more and more difficult.”
In 2023 Yates proved that he was one of the riders who could challenge those big teams, finishing as the best non-Jumbo-Visma or UAE rider at the Tour de France, but he’s not taking that as a given going into 2024.
“There are quite a lot of guys who are around that mark, and a lot of things have to fall in place for that to happen,” he said. “But like I said, I'm hungry still. I'm relatively old now, I've been with this team for 10 years, so I've been around a long time now in terms of cycling, but I'm still hungry to do more and to improve myself and to do better. I want to try and take it to these super teams if I can, but like I say, it is very difficult to pull that off.”
In the face of these super teams who are harnessing technology, nutrition and strategy like never before, and the top riders are getting younger and younger, it would be easy for older riders like Yates to watch the sport move away from them. It’s clear from his continually strong performances, however, that that isn’t how Yates sees it.
“The sport's changing. There's so much innovation. When I turned professional, nobody wore a skinsuit [in road races], nutrition was not a thing, bikes had rim brakes, you name it - it was a different sport. I turned pro when I was 21, and now guys are turning pro when they're 17. It just shows you the difference. You have to keep adapting, keep learning, keep pushing forward, innovating, and that's what we're trying to do every year.
“The sport is changing and it's really improved, it's getting faster and harder every year and you can't be left behind.”