First Night Linda McCartney cycling team: Enter the clean machines

Britain's newest cycling team are as much about a way of life as sport.
Click to follow
The French have a generic term for British cyclists. They call them Les Rosbifs. Not any more. The first British-based team for a decade to take a serious tilt at the continental prizes follow a rigorous code of conduct which has taken sponsorship beyond commerce and into the realms of philosophy. Every member of the 14-man Linda McCartney Pro Cycling Team has to be vegetarian for the duration of their one-year contracts. "If they are caught eating meat, the job's over," says Julian Clark, the team's sponsorship co-ordinator, and also one of the team. "It's as simple as that." Ditto drugs. At Sir Paul's behest, every rider will have the words "Clean machine" painted on the front forks of his bike.

On one level, this is a perfectly ordinary bike team. The workshop, tucked away down a Surrey lane, resembles all other workshops; bike frames hang down from the beams, tyres stacked up in corners. Spare parts and tools line the shelves and the little office from which Sean Yates will run the team has no more than the bare essentials; desk, chair, telephone. Yates was never much of a one for ornament, either on or off the bike.

With a budget of pounds 500,000, an alliance of young overseas talent, like Ben Brooks, the Australian junior world team pursuit champion, and the best of homegrown riders like Chris Newton at his disposal, Yates is preparing to launch a three-year continental campaign which, sponsors and fortune willing, could end in the first British-based team contesting the Tour de France since ANC-Halford 12 years ago. But if the team wear the livery of Linda McCartney, designed by her daughter Stella, the riders have a more complex message to promote.

"We have to carry the flag," says Yates, a vegetarian for most of his 38 years. "We also have to do what she believed in. The team is founded on her beliefs and since her death Paul's mission has been to carry on all the things she believed in, and that means the bike team. We have to get across to the riders that they are carrying someone's beliefs, someone who has fought long and hard against animal cruelty."

The fax of congratulation from Sir Paul which greeted Clark on his return from the Tour of Langkawi in Malaysia, the team's seasonal opener, last week showed the extent of the family's commitment. "Linda would have been over the moon," it read.

A stage win, for David McKenzie, and a third place overall for the young Australian Alan Iacuone marked a promising overseas debut for the team in a field which included Mapei, the Manchester United of cycling teams, and several strong national squads.

Linda herself had made one of her last public appearances at the launch of her bike team last spring. The increased investment in the team for this season is, in one sense, a monument to Linda's memory. "It's much more personal than just flogging cameras or something," Yates says. "It adds a human side to the project, which can only be good as far as I'm concerned. It gives the riders more of a sense of responsibility to do their best."

With a man of Yates' cast-iron credentials at their head, the McCartney team have gained instant credibility in the world of cycling both in Britain and on the continent. In a sport which defines toughness, Yates has earned universal respect for his strength and his honesty. On form, he could match the best for sheer power; but his consistency was the stuff of legend. Yates would never let you down and though one day in the yellow jersey, in his own words, "shows you are a serious bike rider", 15 years on duty for others and 12 completed Tours speak more eloquently of a true pro.

He brought much the same work ethic to bear on his retirement job as a gardener. On the Monday, he returned from his last World Cup race in Japan, on Thursday he was working an eight-hour shift in the garden, the start of a 48-hour weekly routine he followed for two years. But this is new ground for Yates, his first move into the driver's seat of the directeur sportif. The omens are already promising.

Yates correctly forecast the winner of the Tour of Langkawi before the start and, when he was languishing in 31st place, predicted that Iacuone could make it on to the final podium. "You could see the team taking in every word of what he was saying," Clark says. "They just have tremendous respect for the guy."

Clark, in his own way, is no less impressive. He has been a professional since the age of 19, but at motocross not cycling. Only when a fall left him with two blood clots on the brain and roughly 36 hours to live did he turn to triathlon and, then, because cycling was the element he enjoyed most, to harbour serious thoughts of becoming a professional bike racer.

His seventh pro race, at the age of 31, was the Tour of Slovenia where he finished second top British rider, his eighth was the PruTour when he was still trying to come to terms with his new sport's terminology. "Matt Illingworth [a team-mate] said he couldn't believe one of the foreign guys was riding a 53x14 gear ratio and I was looking down trying to count my gears. I hadn't a clue what he was on about. Last year I didn't even know who Sean Yates was." By the end of the inaugural PruTour, he did. Yates had been dragged out of retirement to help out the McCartney team and had roomed with Clark. The pair talked bike racing. "So I knew Sean would be interested in helping the team if the opportunity came," Clark recalls.

But it was Clark himself who made the obvious connection between cycling and Linda McCartney, about 18 months ago. "I picked up some Linda McCartney food in the supermarket and it just seemed right. They are an eco-friendly family, cycling is an eco-friendly sport. So we sat up until 5 o'clock in the morning, putting a presentation together. Within three days, we had a phone call from the company." Rarely can a sponsorship deal have been completed so smoothly. The Linda McCartney team was born, slowly at first but with a sharper competitive edge since Linda's death. From six riders and one car, the team have graduated to a 14-man squad supported by three team cars and a handsomely customised truck.

"I think of this team in the same way as I thought of the big pro teams I rode for," Yates says. "I want us to look like a pro team, not to turn up in a smashed-up transit van, with a couple of rickety old bikes knocked up in grandpa's bike shed on the top. That's been the image of British cycling teams on the continent. The riders have got no excuse."

All the team need now are races. With no UCI points, the team have to rely on the goodwill of race organisers, who admire Yates but are suspicious of British teams. The only way to get points is to race. "It's a vicious circle and very frustrating," Yates said last week. "We just need a few bits and pieces in the continental press, then they'll start to sit up and take notice of us. The trouble is every team is eager to get races early in the season."

The Tour of Normandy, a springtime objective, has already been ruled out. So the team will go to a two-week training camp in Spain at the end of this week and prepare for some Premier calendar races in England before making their continental debut in Italy in early April. "The idea," Yates adds, "is to work on a budget and increase the budget steadily, increase the quality of the riders we have and the races we can enter." Culminating in the Tour? "Why not? Anything's possible."