It is certainly used much more gratuitously than in past decades, but it tends to be another adjective for greatness now. In days where hyperbole was in less demand, “legendary” had a more specific place in our collective vocabulary. Yes, greatness was there, along with an acknowledgement of deeds bordering the miraculous, and an implied sense of decency and equanimity. But the key quality of people we described as legendary was that we weren’t really sure whether they really existed, or if they did, it must have been in some more prosaic corporeal form. A genuine hero, or a fairy tale? The stuff of legend?
In late July 2012, arriving at London Bridge station from deepest Sussex and grabbing a Boris Bike without any real notion on where he was meant to be headed, Sean Yates cast off into the seething mass of humanity, narrowly avoiding a Paul Smith-suited hedge fund manager on his own agenda and mission. Holding up a hand in forgiveness, the most Yates hoped for was understanding and steeled himself for some ribald abuse that those less accustomed to life in The Smoke can receive from time to time.
Instead, the man from high finance momentarily took his mobile from his ear, his face breaking into a huge spontaneous grin, and shouted just one word at the cyclist disappearing into the crowd: “LEGEND!”
In that snapshot moment, that commentator and visionary who will forever remain unnamed and unknown managed to encapsulate the man who has consistently defied efforts to pin him down from friend, fan and foe alike. The mist of myths cleared for a second and a photograph could momentarily replace scraps of yellowing newspaper articles, a figure in the background of a rescued fuzzy newsreel clip and the peculiarly long thigh bone excavated by archaeologists.
Perhaps it’s the breadth of the achievements in Yates’s tale that make him difficult to grasp? The teenager with the V’s-flicking victory salute bullying men twice his age in a sport he knew nothing about surely belongs to a different story than the character who oversaw the defining moment of the world’s most scientifically prepared organisation in the history of organised sport. Feral hedge-hopper to cyborg puppetmaster doesn’t have the ring of a marginal gain.
Maybe it’s his perennial presence at the top table without the banquet ever being in his honour? Olympian from the boycott-stricken Cold War Games of Moscow ’80, retinue courtier from the garlanded and feted Tours de France of 1986 and 1989, roommate of Lance Armstrong (or *Rider formerly known as Lance Armstrong as anybody born in this century assumes his name is spelt). From being the first “gun” hired to be Stephen Roche’s rainbow jersey bodyguard after the Irishman’s annus mirabilis to the hand on the throne when Wiggo received the tributes of the empire at Hampton Court, Yates has a scrapbook that Forrest Gump would bow to.
To be fair, if all you do all day is talk about cycling while doing what you should be doing becomes the sideline (work, bike riding, cooking…) you tend to have your own view on pretty much everything. And that’s another piece of our jigsaw slotted home. Talking about stuff, sharing your personal camera angle of well-known footage, debating what the key moments were, who the man-of-the-match should have been. The fact is that you can’t surmise Yates’s career, psyche or appeal from a list of his results or his Wikipedia page in the way great title gobblers such as Chris Froome, Pete Sampras or Michael Johnson’s achievements demand our respect. His fame – his legend, if you like – isn’t told in numbers or measured by weight of results. If he played golf, he wouldn’t register on any money list or “Race to Dubai” rankings, let alone on Royal & Ancient scrolls of major tournament winners. But there would be plenty of stories about how far he could hit the ball, the sort of unlikely places it ended up, and what acts of heroism or humiliation he cast about himself to get it back on the fairway.
That‘s what we think. LeBlanq isn’t too bothered about record books or the number of views. Given the choice, we’d rather not hear about the things we love via 140 condensed characters, and doubling that to 280 will merely deepen our worry lines. We want our stories delivered directly by a friend we like spending time with, preferably with a long-sought drink in hand, after a very long day riding the high country in the most favourable of lights, as the most memorable meal either of us has put away in years gently goes down. If he needs to check anything, he won’t look at his phone or consult a list. He’ll look in a big dusty book, hopefully bearing the names of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
The sort of stories and yarns that unfurl with the shadows as that sun begins to sink over the Solent would test our belief if this was court. But we’re not here to try cases like a courtroom, this the Court of King Arthur, in the Hall of the Mountain King, the faerie host paying tribute to Oberon and Titania. We’ll start you off: did you hear about the Saturday morning when Sean Yates beat the National 10-mile Time Trial record? He was 19. It was only a couple of years since he’d got his first racing bike. He still had the Winfield tracksuit top that he’d sat up at night with, sewing on the letters of the club he’d hoped would have him as a member, EGCC. It was a bit too tight to wear anymore though, as he’d grown like a Captain America experiment since then. Yes, that was on the A3 at Ripley, must have been about 1979. Imagine racing on that now! Anyway, after knocking off an Early Starter in the Little Chef with his dad – what? Olympic Breakfast? Don’t be silly, the Early Starter was always the serious athlete’s choice – after the Little Chef breakfast they drove back into Sussex and down to Tonbridge, because there was another 10-mile TT there later on. Yes, he really did ride two in the same day. How did he get on? Oh, not bad. He broke the British record again, the second time he’d done it that day. What? No of course they didn’t go round the M25, it was 1979. They probably would have been at home watching Rising Damp or Porridge if the family had ever owned a television.
Is that all really true, you ask? Yes. But that’s not the point. You’re not asking the right questions. It’s not about the record books (although the record books of the Road and Time Trials Council clearly shows S Yates of East Grinstead riding times of 20 minutes 18 seconds and 20 minutes 7 seconds on the same day in different events), it’s about the story. For instance…
You know the cycling photographer, Graham Watson? Legend, absolute legend. Long before it was ever on telly much of his photos got us hooked on the sport: gritty, dark celluloids of filthy, bewildered men who seemed at first to be miners miraculously returning to the surface after spending uncountable days and nights trapped in a collapsed gallery, but turned out to be finishers at Paris-Roubaix. Well, at one of these weekends last year, Graham told me that his best ever time trial as a rider was a 55’56” 25-miler on the E72. That’s the A12 out Chelmsford way to you and me, all the courses had code names back then on account of time trialling being outlawed in the day. Oh yeah, codes. I tell you, Alan Turing, Bletchley Park CC, he was a decent rouleur that kid. Anyway, Graham’s pulling his tracksuit trousers on in a haze of Deep Heat or Radian B at the village hall in Galleywood or Margaretting or somewhere like that, when there’s a bit of a commotion. It’s the timekeeper. Apparently some kid that he’s never heard of with his first pair of toeclips has come in claiming he’s done a 51 minute ride.
His voice is rising throughout the options, finishing in something approaching the rage of John Knox if kept waiting outside the privy by the slow movement of a selfish catholic. The race organiser, mystified, looks at the start sheet, also nonplussed by the unknown youngster’s name.
“You’re right, Bill. S Yates, East Grinstead. 19. Never heard of him. East Grinstead! As if! Let’s see what else he’s done, shall we? Silly little sod… ah. Yes. Ok, Bill. Apparently he was a medallist at the National 25-Mile Championships last week. Bill? Bill!”
The manager at Fagor was so fed up with Yates wearing unauthorised crappy clothing, like Tesco Home’n’Ware tube socks, grey with the myths of legend and 180 machine washes, or never changing his one stinky vests, gave the Englishman a fistful of Francs at one of the Tour warm-ups like the Dauphine or the Midi Libre.“Buy some new undervests and socks, Yates. You’re a disgrace.” It was always Yates’s contention that if they wanted him to wear it, they should provide it, and this seemed fair, so off he slouched to the only place open in the out-of-season ski-station these races invariably finish. They didn’t have any performance underwear. But they did have 3-for-2 on surf tshirts, so the bargain lover picked up a few of them. Which is why, next time you see our all-time favourite cycling picture, Yates on his way to setting the fastest time trial without tri-bars in the long history of the World’s Largest Annual Sporting Event, Wasquehal, July 1988, tongue out, no glasses, no lid, no gloves, zip undone, you should take a close look at that undone zip. It shows just enough of the undergarment for us to be in no doubt that it is most probably a crumpled and sweaty blue/grey Quiksilver tshirt that one imagines smells like a wet labrador. “They wanted me to get some new undervests,” he’ll explain, hands spread open in innocent bewilderment.
Some find this image of the maverick individual at odds with his image of one the greatest domestiques that sport has produced; the water carrier’s water carrier. The team time trial expert revered so greatly that Motorola cancelled his retirement and extended his contract for a year when the Tour de France route was announced and revealed a return of the TTT stage to the format. Which reminds us that during a TTT in a Spanish race Motorola had entered in Tour prep, after a massive pull on the front, the Sussex lad drifted back along the line of teammates looking at their faces. Mejia, calling for his mum… Hampsten, crying… ah, there he is in his World Champion’s jersey, coughing blood, sweat and vomit in an effort to cling on to the back of the train: “Any chance of some sort of fucking turn on the front, Lance?”
Or that it somehow reduces his role in the victories of Froome, Wiggins, Cavendish, Contador, Thomas, Savoldelli etc to lucky mascot. Not only does that just bolster the reputration of those in the Sky, Tinkov and Astana set-ups who like to talk about their own parts in team wins, to us, it embroiders our man’s story. After personally taking weeks in June to ride himself over each of the mountain stages of 2012’s Tour and complete a 2-man recce of the critical final time trial with Wiggins, Yates prepared a meticulous game plan for each day, that riders followed with military precision, fully aware of the martial punishment they’d be subject to otherwise. As a part of a documentary where Dave Brailsford, Rod Ellingworth, Shane Sutton, Tim Kerrison, mechanics, soigneurs and even the occasional chef were able to expand on their parts in Sky’s Wiggins and Froome’s 1-2 and Cavendish’s stage win haul, the man behind the wheel said even less that usual.
“I turn up, I drive the car, I go home.”
by John Deering
Image Credit - Graham Watson
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