There were two surprises after Wednesday’s finish when Adam Yates pulled on the yellow jersey of the Tour de France, which he wore into the first Pyrenean stage of the race on Saturday. The obvious shock was in the way that Yates was awarded the maillot jaune – the passive verb is important here – when Julian Alaphilippe and his Deceuninck–Quick-Step team made an unlikely unforced error that earned the French favourite a time penalty. More disconcerting perhaps was the fact it has taken the best part of seven professional seasons before either Adam or his twin brother, Simon, wore the most fabled jersey in cycling.
The group of Britons who have worn the maillot jaune is select, each among the greatest bike racers to have been produced by these shores. The list starts with Tom Simpson, who held it for a single day in 1962, but whose other honours include the world road title and a string of one-day Classics: Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders, Bordeaux-Paris, Giro di Lombardia. Chris Boardman (1994, 1997, 1998) was an Olympic gold medallist in 1992 and his work at British Cycling and as the mayor of Manchester’s cycling supremo make him arguably the most influential racer Britain has produced.
Sean Yates (1994) won a time‑trial stage in the Tour de France in 1988, which remains the fastest without full aerodynamic kit; he is still a cult hero to British racers. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome need little introduction: Wiggins is (together with Chris Hoy) the most successful British Olympian, and the first UK Tour winner.
In Tour terms, Froome is just behind the greatest legends on four overall wins; only Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Induráin have worn the yellow jersey for more days. Mark Cavendish led the Tour for a single day in 2016, but has won more stages in the race than anyone bar Merckx.
So Adam Yates is in exalted company, but there is an implacable logic to the progress he and his twin brother have made since they joined the Australian team Orica-GreenEdge – now Mitchelton-Scott – at the end of 2013. Apart from moving onward and upward, the only pattern that can be discerned is that when one has taken a stride forward, his twin has matched or exceeded him. Thus far, of the two, Simon has arguably been more successful, taking the overall title in the Vuelta a España in 2018 and two stage wins in the Tour de France last year.
Adam struck earlier, however. In his first professional season, he won the Tour of Turkey and a year later, he was the first Briton to win the San Sebastián Classic one-day race; the following year, he became the first Briton to win the white jersey for best under-25 in the Tour, taking fourth overall. Among British cyclists, only Froome, Wiggins and Geraint Thomas have finished higher up the standings. That year, Yates was involved in a bizarre crash when the inflatable “red spider” that marked the final kilometre deflated just as he was passing underneath at the end of a mountain stage.
He also earned the nickname of “The Shadow” because of his ability to remain in the lead group in the mountains without making any flamboyant efforts. “I’ve done that all my life,” he told me. “Not just at the Tour – watch any other race and I’ll be close to the back looking at the group, working out who looks good. It’s the way I like to ride. It works for me.”
In 2016, he and his team manager, Matt White, were adamant that stage wins were the goal rather than the overall standings. This year, after two Tours when his challenge for the yellow jersey stalled disturbingly, the pair said exactly the same: stage wins would be the target. But as White explained, the two objectives are far from mutually exclusive: if a rider is trying to sniff out stage‑winning opportunities, that can help your cause in the overall battle. Had Yates not had the nous and the legs to go with Alaphilippe’s attack on stage two in Nice – despite knowing he would struggle to out-sprint the Frenchman – he would not have ended up within reach of the yellow jersey.
Simon and Adam will go their separate ways at the end of this season. Simon remains with Mitchelton, while Adam joins Team Ineos, which can only induce a wry smile given that the British team were in a position to sign the pair in 2013 but did not want both of them, while Orica did.
Although the duo have always performed well together – they won the British Madison championship as juniors in 2010 – they have rarely ridden as a unit at Orica/Mitchelton, and racing as individuals has hardly been damaging for them.
In 2013, Simon rode for the Great Britain under-23 team, taking a gold medal at the world track championships. But Adam was not drawn to the track side of the GB programme and opted to compete in France for CC Étupes, with the support of Yorkshire cycling charity the Dave Rayner Foundation.
Yates’s move to Ineos has prompted speculation that if Egan Bernal’s drive for Tour victory this year falters, the team may not be exactly displeased to see him challenge for the overall standings.
More concretely, if the Lancastrian gets close to overall victory in the Tour this year and Thomas has a poor Giro d’Italia, the Welshman may find Ineos looking an increasingly crowded place to be.