From The Milk Race To Madrid

After British riders complete an unprecedented triple crown of Grand Tour wins, can Simon Yates go one further by adding the rainbow stripes? Rapha Mondial asked Jeremy Whittle to assess the season so far, and look ahead to Austria next week.

18 September 2018

And then, suddenly, there were four. Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Simon Yates. From almost nowhere, British professional riders now dominate Grand Tour racing.

The nation of testers and café stops, of the Milk Race, the Tour of Lancs, Mark Walsham, Phil Bayton and Steve ‘Pocket Rocket’ Joughin going for it in the Premier Calendar, now rules the roost.

The same nation’s cycling heroics spawned the best book on terrible Tour teams, Jeff Connor’s disaster diary on the 1987 Tour’s ANC Halfords team, ‘Wide Eyed and Legless.’ Three decades on from that debacle, it’s a surreal reversal of fortunes.

Yep, those are the Brits up there, winning in Italy, France and Spain; despite the bullying drivers, the ‘what’s the matter, can’t you afford a BMW?’ road rage, the lack of 20 kilometre climbs to train on, the volatile weather and the potholed roads — despite all that, we are now officially the kings of the hill.

Yes, Froome and Thomas spend most of their year in Monaco, while Yates bases himself in Andorra, but — certainly with Thomas and Yates — their roots, their culture, come from the British club scene of Maindy Flyers and Bury Clarion.

There’s been enough written about how exactly this turnaround in sporting fortunes, from nonentities to champions, was achieved (and some of that insight is inspiring and some of it worrisome) but the question now for British cycling, is where next?

In terms of age, Yates is the coming man. Froome and Thomas, both sliding into their mid-thirties, may have had their moment, but with Froome’s unrelenting ambition to take a fifth Tour de France undimmed, that assessment may prove premature.

Mitchelton-Scott’s Grand Tour winner is still a cub scout in comparison, still a work in progress. And, yes, a better drilled and more focused Team Sky could well have given him and his teammates a torrid time during the Vuelta and success would have been harder to achieve.

Pre-Vuelta victory, Yates’ highs in 2018 were significant — a ski station stage win at La Colmiane during Paris-Nice, the string of stage wins in the Giro — while his lows — defeat on the final day of Paris-Nice by just four seconds, and that crushing collapse on the Finestre as the Giro reached its climax — proved a brutal lesson.

On each occasion — on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice and in the Italian Alps at Bardonecchia — he tried to persuade himself that he was happy with his performance, merely to again have come up short.

“It’s okay,” he said on both occasions, clearly crestfallen. “I’m getting closer to winning the overall. One day I’ll take the top spot.”

In that sense, the Vuelta win represents a Rubicon moment for him. No longer a nearly man, he will now now be expected to challenge for the Giro, the Tour and of course to defend the Vuelta. The old excuses of youthful impetuosity and inexperience no longer apply. Now he will be expected to win.

Closer on the horizon — at least for Yates — is the culmination of the season in Innsbruck, on a climber’s course, that, based on what we saw at the Vuelta a España, suits him down to the ground.

The men’s road race takes in almost 5,000 metres of climbing and includes a murderously steep ramp shortly before the finish. It is, indisputably, mountainous and the last lap of the circuit, which includes a 2,8 kilometre climb, with that dreaded 25% section and a fast descent towards the line, will dictate the outcome.

Without Froome and Thomas — both of whom have already ended their season — Yates will be Team GB’s best hope. But there are others who excel on brutally sharp climbs and fast, winding descents.

The favourites include recent Tour of Britain winner and Tour de France King of the Mountains, Julian Alaphilippe, Primož Roglič, Vincenzo Nibali, Michał Kwiatkowski — who won the world title on a similar course in 2014 — and Nairo Quintana, increasingly desperate to arrest a palpable decline.

Working against Yates too, is the contrasting lack of results from British riders in elite one day racing. Mark Cavendish has bagged a world road race title and a victory at Milan–San Remo, but beyond that, it’s relatively slim pickings.

What does that tell us? Perhaps that Grand Tour success is now dependent more on consistency and regularity, strength in depth — plus budget and resource too — than on individual brilliance and an intuitive ability to assess a one-off situation on a given climb.

Would Yates have won the Vuelta if Froome, Dumoulin and Bardet had been there? It’s almost impossible to say if his team and his climbing skills would have still been able to make the difference.

That said, he could only race what was in front of him and of that field, he was clearly the outstanding rider. Even so, of this year’s Grand Tours, the 2018 Vuelta — given the notable absentees from the start line in Malaga and the problems faced by Nibali and Richie Porte — was probably the ‘easiest’ to win.

Next week, the 2019 Giro d’Italia route is unveiled in Bologna. Yates has spoken of “unfinished business” at the Italian race, but the Tour, which is, in its unrelenting hothouse nature, a far more daunting challenge, must be his next objective.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, on the scene that spawned Wiggins, Thomas and Yates, there is, ironically, a deepening crisis.

A series of cash-strapped teams and sponsors, their efforts hidden by the lengthening shadow cast over the domestic scene by the never-ending British success being hoovered up abroad, have fallen by the wayside. With the latest, JLT-Condor, announcing this weekend that it was to close up shop at the end of the year.

It would be the bitterest pill to swallow if the legacy of these Grand Tour champions was a collapse of the culture that formed them.

Jeremy Whittle writes for The Guardian and is the author of ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Ventoux.’ You can find him on Twitter @jeremycwhittle