Jesse Yates and his dad Sean: 'We both like suffering but he's fully sadistic... I'm only halfway there'

How gravel rider Jesse got his grit from his father and what legendary hardman Sean – the Tour racer they called 'The Animal' – has learnt from his more sensitive son

Sean and Jesse Yates
(Image credit: Richard Butcher)

This feature is part of the MEET THE MAKER series – each edition of which is first published in Cycling Weekly’s print magazine 

Imagine you’re an ambitious youngster but your dad won almost two dozen pro races and wore the yellow jersey at the Tour de France: how do you forge your own identity and move out of your father’s shadow? 

For most of Jesse Yates’s childhood, he didn’t even try. Instead, he became obsessed with video games, and by the time he was 18 his weight had ballooned to almost 100kg. But then the Olympics came home to London and put a fire in the young man’s belly. Finally he picked up a bike and set about making sure that the Yates family legend lived on.

Born in 1960, Sean Yates rode no fewer than 12 Tours de France and in 1994 became one the third Briton to wear the yellow jersey. Although he mostly served as a domestique, he took stage wins in the Tour, Vuelta a España, became national champion in 1992, and rode for the Motorola team until 1996, when he retired. 

Sean Yates in the yellow jersey at the 1994 Tour de France

(Image credit: Graham Watson)

After hanging up his professional wheels, he continued to compete in domestic time trials and then moved into management and sports director roles with a variety of teams, including Linda McCartney, Discovery Channel and latterly, Tinkoff-Saxo. 

Sean was Bradley Wiggins’s Team Sky DS when the Briton won the 2012 Tour de France. Last year, this magazine honoured Sean’s long list of achievements by bestowing on him the Cycling Weekly Lifetime Achievement Award.

In the Nineties and early-Noughties, Sean and his then wife Pippa had three children (the couple separated in 2005). Jesse’s older brother Liam, born in 1993, is a multidisciplinary cyclist who has undertaken a variety of long-distance events and runs the SSX Mystery Tour, a 250km gravel ride in Sussex. The youngest Yates sibling, Bathsheba, was born in 2000.

Twenty-seven-year-old Jesse rode for Team Wiggins in 2018 and is now one of the country’s foremost gravel riders, riding for Canadian outfit Yoeleo Factory Team. He won the Badlands Ultra Race Pairs with Sam Andrews in 2023, the duo completing the 700km race in southern Spain in 45 hours. Despite being late to follow in his dad’s wheel tracks, how much has Jesse taken from his all-conquering father?

Jesse Yates

  • Age: 27
  • Height: 6ft
  • Raised: Sussex
  • Lives: Forest Row, East Sussex 
  • Occupation: Business development manager for CAMS
  • Biggest sporting achievement: 1st – Badlands Ultra Race Pairs, 2023

Cycling Weekly: How sporty was your childhood?

Jesse Yates: I was in all the school teams but it was football I loved the most. I didn’t care about cycling. My dad borrowed a road bike for me, but wearing a helmet and borrowed Lycra, I rode past the skatepark I’d usually hang out at; and I crashed. I told him I’d never ride a road bike again.

Did you ever go to bike races with your dad?

He was away a lot, and I didn’t understand who Sean Yates the cyclist was. We’d occasionally go in the Discovery team car, go on the loudspeaker, toot the funny horn, but I didn’t know he was a hitter. When the 2007 Tour started in London, my brother and I were less concerned with the riders than with who could get more signatures. I won – the bus driver signed my cap!

When did you get interested in cycling?

My mum didn’t allow us to play video games until we were 15 or 16 but when I got an Xbox I went crazy. I put on loads of weight. I reached 94kg. My dad and Liam were going out to watch the Vuelta a España in 2012 in the campervan on a riding holiday and I was jealous. That started the weight loss.

Have you and your dad got similar body types?

He’s taller, but, yeah, we do. Me and my brother both have big legs like he does.

How are your bodies different?

Back in the Stone Age when my dad was competing, he’d be doing 500 press-ups a day, working all the time on his upper-body strength. I don’t have any strength up there.

What did you most gain from your dad?

Endurance on the bike, being able to spend all day on the pedals. But, honestly, it’s mostly the mental side of things – being able to deal with the demands of all-day riding and suffering.

What did you definitely not gain from your dad?

I can’t sprint at all. My brother can, and my dad can a bit – but I’m useless.

Was that evident as soon as you started cycling?

At first, I’d have eight Weetabixes and jump on the bike for six hours on nothing else. It was always an exercise in mentally coping with the duration in the saddle, and it came naturally to me.

How do your positions on the bike compare?

Partly due to injuries, Dad sits on his bike in a very unique way – he drops the hoods and handlebars on his bike quite low. I dance on the pedals, to step it out like Alberto Contador.

Do you have a similar sense of humour and similar personalities? 

We’re funny when we’re together. Every day I find myself acting more like him.

What’s your biggest difference?

He can be a bit oblivious to emotion and is more of a brute force type of personality. I would say I’m more considerate and emotional. We both like suffering, but he’s fully sadistic and I’m only halfway there.

Has your dad helped you with his contacts?

Bradley Wiggins asked him if I’d like to race for Team Wiggins. He said I wasn’t good enough, but Brad insisted it was the best possible place for me to perform and progress, so I joined them. I’ve also stayed with Steve Cummings and Juan Antonio Flecha in their houses, both contacts thanks to Dad.

How does your dad coach you?

At first, I did exactly what he told me to, but the more I got into cycling, the more I understood what works for me and now he’s more of an advisor than a coach. He strives for me to get the most out of myself, and what he says works, but sometimes I have to tell him that brute force, balls-to-the-wall riding, and just going f**king hard all the time isn’t what I want to do. We have a good coach- rider relationship.

Sean Yates

  • Age: 63
  • Height: 6ft 1in
  • Raised: Surbiton, Greater London Lives: 
  • Castellon, Spain 
  • Occupation: Retired sports director 
  • Biggest sporting achievement: Stage win at Tour de France and Vuelta a España 1988

Cycling Weekly: As a youngster, did Jesse take an interest in your career?

Sean Yates: I was away a lot as a rider and then DS. We went for rides together, but Jesse was into football and Liam wasn’t really into sport as a kid.

When did Jesse get into cycling?

He’d really let himself go and was engrossed in Xbox. But bit by bit he got hooked from 2012 onwards, and we’d do laps in Sussex together. My daughter would keep notes of the times we did. Liam was working in a bike shop by then and that’s when we became a cycling family.

Have you got similar body types?

He’s between 65 and 70kg, and I was 10kg heavier. But, like me, he has a lot of power in his legs.

How are your bodies different?

I used to do so many press-ups that it left me with a powerful upper body. I was doing track and they said you needed to be strong, so I joined the gym and started doing press-ups, but there is in how we both embrace the mental challenge of setting a goal and getting on with it.

What did you definitely not give Jesse?

He’s not a very good sprinter. I wasn’t really, but I could just about manage one. Liam’s a natural sprinter.

What’s the biggest difference, as riders, between Jesse and Liam, would you say?

Liam’s done quite a few big events and can push through tough times, but when it gets miserable, he’s more likely to pull the pin. But Jesse knows you can’t – he’s happy with being uncomfortable. It’s a twisted sense of pleasure, torturing yourself knowing that you’re going to get the satisfaction of conquering that fear and unpleasantness.

How do your positions on the bike compare?

He’s extreme: he sits forward on the saddle. I didn’t back in the day, but I do now. He’s a grinder like I am; he can grind it out mile after mile after mile.

Has that ability to grind it out always been obvious?

After a year of riding, he was doing 10-hour rides. Physically that’s tough, but a big part of it is having the mental strength. He had that straight away. He’s very stubborn and single-minded – people will tell you that I was and still am the same.

Do you have similar personalities?

We have the same mentality of cracking on and refusing to moan.

What’s your biggest difference?

He’s more cocky than I am! But in a good way – he can direct it towards something positive.

Have your contacts helped Jesse?

I got him the place on Team Wiggins. He found it hard at that level. I wonder if having such a sedentary lifestyle in his younger years counted against him.

How do you coach him?

He’s forging his own way in the sport, and this year we’ve changed tack by not concentrating on volume so much, but instead more on strength, absolute power, seated power and recovery. You don’t need to do eight-hour days anymore – races are won with power nowadays, and that’s his focus now.

How do you support him at races?

He comes out to Spain a lot, and we do recons and plan his race strategy together. Nothing excites me like bike racing does, and Jesse being successful – and seeing how much he really wants it – is great.

Guess what he said when we asked...

Cycling Weekly: Could Sean have excelled at gravel racing?

Jesse: Absolutely. He is sadistic – I’ve never met anyone who can go to the extremes that he can. With his performance level, he’d win everything. 

Sean: I definitely think so. I love extreme events, and I would have been suited to these massive off-road endurance events.

How will Sean do in next April’s Traka 360, a world-famous gravel race in Girona, Spain?

J: He’ll complete it in over 24 hours. He’ll get some rest at 260km, and crawl to the finish. He needs to learn to drink regularly, though! 

S: Well, I guarantee no one else with permanent atrioventricular canal defect [a hole in the wall separating the heart’s chambers] will be on the start line! I’ll make sure I get through it.

What do you think of Sean the pro rider?

J: As a rider, he would have been very devoted to a task and emptied himself. As manager, I wouldn’t have messed with him.

S: He probably said I’m an obscene old bugger, but I think he can also see why I was called The Animal. He knows that, forsome twisted reason, I enjoy suffering, and that I demand everything from my riders.

Who’s more competitive?

J: Him, of course. He’s obsessed with making himself and other people suffer.

S: He’d have said me, as I hate losing. That said, Jesse beats himself up like a boxer as part of his self-motivation, whereas I’m more a silent assassin.

What’s your most noticeable shared trait?

J: We’re blunt and hate faffing.

S: If you come out riding with us and ask us to slow down, we’ll both tell you at the same time: ‘Shut up and hurry the f**k up!’

What’s one thing you’d change in Sean?

J: He’ll tell me to go hard in training 20 times!

S: Jesse needs to stop sniffing when I’m driving next to him!

Who wears earrings better? 

J: I’m getting another one today! I want to get my nose done too. He’ll call me a pony.

S: The fact he wears earrings is proof he does look up to me! He sees what I’ve done, and still do.

This article was originally published in the December 14, 2023 edition of Cycling Weekly. Subscribe online and get the magazine delivered direct to your door every week. 

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