Interview: Sean Yates talks TUEs, Tinkov and retirement

Former Team Sky directeur sportif defends Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky following TUE leak

After guiding riders like Sir Bradley Wiggins and Alberto Contador to Tour de France success, British directeur sportif Sean Yates will leave the sport at the end of this season. With his current team, Tinkoff, disbanding at the end of the season, Yates has also decided 2016 will be his final year in the sport.

Despite opportunities to work elsewhere, Yates says it is time to leave cycling’s top tier and begin ‘taking it easy’, believing he leaves the sport at an important juncture – with the recent TUE scandals helping, he hopes, to take cycling another step closer to the clean sport it strives to be.

The former British champion and Tour de France stage winner, who also spent a solitary day in the Tour’s yellow jersey despite being better known for his work as a domestique, has now enjoyed 18 years working behind the scenes. The 56-year-old’s managerial career includes roles at the Linda McCartney Racing Team, Team CSC, Discovery Channel, Astana, Team Sky, NFTO and Tinkoff.

Sean Yates guided Bradley Wiggins to victory at the 2012 Tour de France

One of the most successful sports directors of the last decade, it is his work with Team Sky for which he will arguably be best remembered, having helped to lead Wiggins to the first British Tour de France victory in 2012.

Yates actually quit the sport at the end of that year but after returning with British domestic team NFTO in 2014, then stepped back up to the WorldTour with Tinkoff. This time, however, he insists his decision to retire is final.

“My mind is set that I am out of pro cycling. I have done my time,” he told RoadCyclingUK. “I have drawn a line under WorldTour cycling definitely, if not all cycling. To embed into a new team is difficult and I have been in the top echelons of the sport for a long time.

“I am 56, I’ve had my fair share of health problems and maybe it’s time to chill out after 35 years on the road. I want to get back into coaching, riding my bike and taking it easy.”

To TUE or not to TUE?

Yates was also a former team-mate and then directeur sportif of Lance Armstrong, and his original decision to leave the sport, at the end of 2012, came at a time when Team Sky were tightening their anti-doping stance in the wake of Armstrong’s doping revelations, though both Yates and the team insisted his departure was due to health reasons.

As Yates draws the curtain on his career, again, it is at a time when cycling is embroiled in another controversy – this time surrounding the use of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs). Wiggins, Yates’ former charge, is one of the many high-profile sporting figures to have had their medical data leaked by Russian hackers ‘Fancy Bears’.

The hack showed Wiggins to have taken Triamcinolone, a powerful corticosteroid, prior to the 2011 and 2012 Tours de France and 2013 Giro d’Italia, for long-term asthma and pollen-induced allergies. Though completely within the rules of the sport, the morality of using TUEs has been brought into question by the leaks, and Yates – though reiterating Sky were clean – acknowledges TUEs are open to abuse.

Yates insists Team Sky ‘clean as a whistle’ after Wiggins’ leaked medical records showed he had a TUE for triamcinolone ahead of the Tour (pic: Sirotti)

“It is a grey area because, very simply, any medication can improve performance, but if you are ill you need to get better,” he said. “So unless they ban all medication, there will always be a grey area open to abuse.

“There is a potential to abuse the system, but the abuse of drugs in cycling is on the decline.

“I don’t want to comment on Sky or Wiggins because I do not know all of the facts. Of course, people have their opinion, and when you have a profile people listen to that opinion but to my knowledge, Sky were as clean as a whistle.”

“[TUEs] are a grey area because very simply any medication can improve performance, but if you are ill you need to get better”

Yates believes the recent revelations could even lead positive change in cycling, with the scandal helping UCI and WADA in its quest to rid cycling of doping. Yates hopes the hack will lead to a review of the methods of both parties.

He added: “No-one has asked how WADA and the UCI had their systems hacked? You would like to think we are living in a better, more educated world but bankers still fiddle their systems and people still blow each other up, we don’t live in a paradise.

“However, cycling is cleaning up its act and hopefully this new story will help us take another step forward.”

End of an era

Yates’ defence of Team Sky mirrors that of his current boss, Oleg Tinkov. The multi-millionaire Russian businessman is pulling the plug on his investment into pro cycling, meaning an end to the Tinkoff team come December. But while the decision has prompted Yates’ retirement, the Brit paid tribute to Tinkov’s commitment to the sport.

“Any individual who puts money into cycling is welcome, and there is definitely a short fall of those individuals and companies,” said Yates He will certainly be missed.

“TwoWorld Tour teams will go missing at the end of the season [IAM Cycling are the other] and he kept a lot of people in jobs. However, we cannot blame him.

“He has done his turn and he may even return – stranger things have happened.”

Yates hailed Oleg Tinkov’s impact on sport, and insists his decision to leave cycling can’t be criticised (pic: Sirotti)

Va va Froome

Yates and Tinkoff’s final season has been one of mixed results. While world champion Peter Sagan bagged 13 victories, including his first Monument – the Tour of Flanders – and three stages of the Tour de France, the team’s Grand Tour contender, Contador, crashed out of both the Tour and Vuelta a Espana.

But Yates believes Contador, whose early season form prompted the Spaniard to shelve his own retirement plans, could still overcome Chris Froome in 2017, when Contador moves to Trek-Segafredo.

“If everyone decided to race the Giro because they thought Froome would win the Tour, we would not have a race. Alberto is a champion and champions want to ride the biggest races”

“Obviously Contador’s crashes were disappointing for us this season,” Yates admitted. “[But] Froome showed us that when he’s on form he is the best.

“Froome ticks all the boxes, he can time trial, he has stopped making mistakes and he is the best climber but, without crashing, Alberto would have certainly been up there.”

Yates rebuked any suggestion Contador would be better targeting the Giro d’Italia or Vuelta a Espana, however, insisting riders of seven-time Grand Tour winner Contador’s quality would not settle for less than beating back-to-back defending champion Froome at next year’s Tour.

“If everyone decided to race the Giro because they thought Froome would win the Tour, we would not have a race,” Yates said. “Alberto is a champion and champions want to ride the biggest races.

Alberto Contador crashed twice at the 2016 Tour de France before abandoning, but Yates insists he can still challenge Chris Froome (pic: Sirotti)

“The Tour is the biggest race. He would not be satisfied with anything less and he certainly would not take the easier option. The day he takes the easy option is the day he will retire.”

Yates’ day to retire has come, however. Sir Bradley Wiggins once said Sean Yates seemed to know ‘every climb in Europe’, and it is without doubt this experience and knowledge that helped him become one of the most successful directeur sportifs of the decade.

But for Yates, his time in the team cars has now come to an end.


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