A thankless journey of trying to find out who apparent comedian Simon Yates really is
We take a sideways look at this mysterious figure who rarely shows much of his true self
There was a quote at the start of the season that really intrigued me, so much so that I think about it quite a lot.
It was what James Knox said to this publication about his time training with both Adam and Simon Yates before last year’s Olympics, describing them as “both really funny.”
“I was howling at the dinner table most nights,” the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl rider added.
It’s not haunted me or caused me nightmares because that would be weird and creepy, but it has definitely consumed my thoughts more than is necessary.
Because, having interviewed Simon Yates a fair bit, and read a good proportion of his comments, I have only ever met the Simon Yates who knows exactly what he is going to say before he has even been asked the question. The one communicating almost entirely in cliches and fillers, keeping his true thoughts guarded and letting very few people in on the real him.
Ok, he’s a phenomenal athlete, certainly underrated and under-appreciated by both the wider British public but also the cycling community. He’s won 10 Grand Tour stages, topped the GC at the 2018 Vuelta a España, and has 31 race wins on his palmarès. He is a modern day cycling legend.
But he's never appeared funny.
Nevertheless, Knox’s comment sparked an idea: I had to get to the bottom of this. This is one of the all-time greatest British athletes, and therefore I naturally want our sporting heroes to be engaging with the public. I want them to endear themselves to us, in the way Bradley Wiggins did and latterly Tom Pidcock has, in their own distinct ways.
So who really is Simon Yates? What makes him click? What are his interests? How is he apparently so damn funny?!
I set to work at the Vuelta a España, first interviewing BikeExchange-Jayco’s DS Gene Bates who has worked with Yates since 2015. It doesn’t start well. “He’s a bit of an enigma, isn’t he,” he rather obviously states.
I question how Comedian Yates really is deserving of this title. “It’s hard for you to see that side, eh?” Bates isn’t giving me much. “He’s got a great sense of humour,” he continues. “He’s very quick-witted; a typical British style of humour.”
Give me an example, Gene. “Ah, you know, he can dish it out as much as he can take it.”
Specifics, Gene. I need specifics. I turn to Lawson Craddock, a teammate of Yates for only eight months, but a race colleague of Yates for over a decade. He’s useless. “What do you think Simon’s humour is like?” Craddock redirects the question to the team’s press officer Lucy Martin. “He’s just quite quiet, really,” Martin deadpans.
By now, Martin - herself a former racer - is getting exasperated with my line of enquiry. “There’s really nothing to him. He’s just Simon,” she says, as she marches me towards his long-time soigneur, the Italian Marco Gobbi
“He’s funny with some people,” Gobbi states. “He doesn’t want too much stress nor too many people around him, but when he knows he can have a good relationship with someone, he is more open and for that reason he’s really funny. He’s enjoyable.”
Am I on the precipice of a breakthrough? Is he a joker? Is he a prankster? Is he the class clown? None of the above, apparently. “I try to give him some Italian humour,” Gobbi says, not elaborating on my probing because evidently Simon Yates is not that funny.
I knew beforehand that this was a thankless task, but it’s becoming arduous. I'm deflated.
Do we expect too much of our sports stars, I wonder. What am I trying to achieve? Look around at any friendship group, and a good proportion of them are not individuals full of amazing stories and funny tales. It’s naive to expect our sporting heroes to all be fun and interesting. It’s OK if they’re not. “He’s just very relaxed, very calculated,” long-time team-mate Luke Durbridge adds. “Just a really genuine bloke.” It’s what everyone says: genuine, relaxed, focused and calm - these are the buzzwords they all say.
That’s fine, I suppose. Let’s not try to change reality. Let’s not be disgruntled because a decent proportion of the population is not hilarious.
It's clear I - and the rest of us - are not in on the in-joke of Yates' apparent humour; he's having the last laugh by deliberating holding back his banter.
But I can’t pretend I’m not hungry, that I’m not impatient. If I can't find out how he is apparently so really funny, then I at least want him to be interesting. There must be something - surely something! - about one half of the Bury twins that can pique my interest, I cry.
Gobbi is filling the team’s bottles for the day. I’m desperate. “What’s Simon’s preferred drink?” I mutter, hopelessly. Gobbi’s eyes light up. Martin’s, too. They both shout at the same time. “Vichy Catalan!” They chuckle, excitement across both of their faces.
“Oh, he loves Vichy Catalan,” Gobbi says of the sparkling water from Spain. “It doesn’t matter where we are, if he’s got a Vichy Catalan, he’s happy.”
A discovery. I spread the word through the press pack, excited that I have found out something interesting about Simon Yates. A colleague stops me. “Chris, it’s sparkling water.” God, I really have stooped so low, lowered to such depths that I think a human being liking sparkling water is interesting.
But there’s more development, this time from his teammate of nine seasons, Dubridge: “He does, yeah, Vichy Catalan and St-Yorre, the French version,” the Australian laughs. “Salty water, he loves it. It’s probably the saltiest water you can get so performance-wise it’s actually pretty good.”
Emboldened by my investigative journalism, I inform a fellow journalist of the latest developments and he asks Yates about his apparent obsession with Vichy Catalan. He laughs. He keeps laughing. He’s really actually giggling. I see him smile like never before, his mouth agape with genuine happiness. Yes, I think, just two metres away, he’s going to warm to the question and open up. We’re going to find out something interesting about Simon Yates.
But then he stops laughing. He moves to the side. He moves away. No more words. He’s gone. I just can't make any in-roads.
Gobbi is not Yates’ personal soigneur per se, but he’s there at every race the Briton does, giving him every massage he has. “He talks about music, holiday, family, his dog,” he reels off, his obvious list doing little to satisfy me. “Cars,” he continues. “He likes fast cars.”
Does he now, I question. “Yeah, he has a Mercedes G-Wagon. A blue one. A big blue one,” Gobbi informs.
For those who don’t know, like I didn’t, a Mercedes G-Wagon is a rather large, four-litre twin turbo V8 4x4 car, coming in eight colours and costing a minimum of £88,790 brand new. Apparently it’s fast.
“I’ve been driving with him and he’s a really good driver,” Gobbi says. “I drive his car and I am better, for sure, but he’s not so bad.”
Interesting, Mr. Yates likes cars. Does Durbridge know? “Well, this is the thing, he keeps himself to himself,” he disappoints. “I know he’s got a fast car, but with Simon you don’t really know.”
Ok, it was time to ask the man himself about it. Stage six: I took my place at the mixed zone. I was nervous for the inevitable eye roll, but I was going to ask him to expand on his love of cars. He walks away.
Stage eight, I was back. He does TV, he walks away. Stage nine, repeat. Once Yates has said what he needs to about seeing what will happen and taking it day by day, he trundles back off. No time to engage in silliness.
It’s therefore back to Gobbi for information. “He really loves Italian pasta with tomato sauce after the race,” he claims.
This corroborates with what I already knew about Yates. I remember interviewing him before the delayed 2020 Giro d’Italia and the commission was clear: a fun profile of Simon Yates, which is basically equivalent to sentencing a journalist to redundancy. Read: we know by now that Yates isn't going to give us anything. We live outside of his private orbit of jokes and witticism.
I tried, I really tried, but the best I could do, the best colour I managed to elicit from him was that he would eat pizza every day if he could. So desperate for some Simon Yates excitement were Cycling Weekly that this exact comment made the front cover of the magazine.
Even as desperate as I am right now, Yates liking the most basic of food does not interest me. Let’s try Durbridge again. “I know Simon loves a mad holiday,” he enthuses, something that Gobbi mentions also.
“He likes to go to different locations,” Durbridge expands. Like where, I query. “Oh, actually I don’t know, but he likes to go to exotic places,” Durbridge responds. “He loves a bit of beach time like a good Brit. He likes to talk about all different locations around the world and I know he goes to Greece and all these other places, and he loves riding his bike.”
Sorry, Luke, but riding his bike is his job and Greece is not exotic. It’s in Europe. Simon is European. I was expecting some actual exotic location or far-flung destination. Greece is neither.
I’m admitting defeat. I don’t want to, but I have to. Simon Yates really is just a bit... normal. There's nothing overly remarkable about him, aside from his talent on a bicycle.
I remember a former colleague of mine suggesting in 2015 that British Cycling ought to market both Simon and Adam as poster boys of the sport in the UK. They could be cycling’s version of the Brownlee brothers, successful twins conquering the world together.
“Hahaha,” Gobbi laughs loudly when I tell him of this memory. “Definitely not, definitely not,” he says when I put it to him that Yates has no interest in marketing himself. “Nothing. He doesn’t like this.”
I imagine that when Yates is finished winning bike races in five to 10 years, he’ll drift away from the spotlight he most certainly does not want to be in. “Hmm, I don’t know about that,” Gobbi says, rather surprisingly. “I’ve spoken with him about that and he told me he’d probably like to be a coach. Not a DS, but a coach. It’s just an idea but he loves data and numbers, so it’s probably a good thing for him.”
A slave to numbers, a geek of the screen. That seems quite a good fit for Yates, I think to myself. Maybe there really isn’t much to him. Maybe he is actually funny in private. Who knows. Very few people, apparently.
Whatever the truth, that’s alright. Once again, maybe we don’t need to demand that our sporting heroes are loud, fun and exciting in public.
If Simon’s happy sipping his Vichy Catalan and eating his tomato pasta in his blue Mercedes G-Wagon, while thinking about his next trip to Greece, then that’s fine by me. I'm satisfied with him just being the phenomenal athlete that he really is.
Due to a content management system issue an earlier version of this piece was mistakenly published before it had gone through Cycling Weekly's usual editorial process.
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Chris first started writing for Cycling Weekly in 2013 on work experience and has since become a regular name in the magazine and on the website. Reporting from races, long interviews with riders from the peloton and riding features drive his love of writing about all things two wheels.
Probably a bit too obsessed with mountains, he was previously found playing and guiding in the Canadian Rockies, and now mostly lives in the Val d’Aran in the Spanish Pyrenees where he’s a ski instructor in the winter and cycling guide in the summer. He almost certainly holds the record for the most number of interviews conducted from snowy mountains.
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