Cycling: Village gardener becomes one of the President's men in pursuit of Tour record

Sean Yates will play a key role as Lance Armstrong tries to win a seventh Tour de France, writes Alasdair Fotheringham
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The Independent Online

For the best part of May, Sean Yates spent up to 10 hours a day driving behind Lance Armstrong's team-mate Paolo Savoldelli in his successful attempt to win the Giro d'Italia.

Beginning next Saturday, Yates, in his role as assistant road manager of Armstrong's squad, Discovery Channel, will have the same role to play - but for the American himself in the Tour de France. And in between the two? Cutting hedges, mainly.

Already an unprecedented six-time Tour winner, Armstrong's plan is to put his record seemingly beyond reach at seven and then retire on the finish line in Paris. The stakes could not be higher, and the pressure on the Texan and those working with him, will be immense.

Armstrong has spent most of this month donning his Lycra shorts and wraparound shades and pounding up and down mountain roads that will form part of the 2005 Tour route. Yates, meanwhile, when not forming part of the inner circle of one of cycling's living legends, can usually be found up a ladder in the hedgerows of Forest Row, Sussex, clipping the privet for his other, less famous, clients.

"The gardening works by word of mouth," Yates, in his early 40s, says in his soft, south-east England burr. "People hear what you can do, they keep my number and that's how I get called for my gardening jobs." Word of mouth was also how Yates got to work for Armstrong, which started in January.

"He'd heard I was doing all right as an assistant manager for [the Danish team] CSC and he gave me a call last May. I didn't think too long about it." He did not have to. The last phrase is revealing. Even if it hadn't been Armstrong on the other end of the line, Yates would probably have moved on, because "there were doubts about the sponsor for the next year".

Yates knows about the instability of behind-the-scenes work in cycling. He was manager of the Linda McCartney team which collapsed in a flurry of bankruptcy, broken promises and backstabbing in 2001.

So it was back home to working on a building site, then hedge-cutting as the weather grew warmer. That summer, while on his way to buy a trailer for his gardening job, he got another phone call from another former Tour winner, the Dane Bjarne Riis, who recruited him to be an assistant manager.

But why go back if all that remained from his Linda McCartney days was memories of unpaid bills and 24-hours-a-day work schedules? "The bottom line is it pays better than hedge-cutting," he says.

But while Yates says he has no lack of customers for his ability with a pair of long-handled shears, his cycling credentials are equally impeccable. A former continental-based rider with a Tour de France stage win to his name, as well as a day spent leading the race in 1994, and a long and distinguished career in one-day Classics. For 15 years Yates methodically built up a reputation as an ultra-loyal, down-to-earth domestique, or team worker. He quit in the mid-Nineties after a spell with the US squad Motorola, riding alongside Armstrong.

Ten years on, and Armstrong is four weeks away from retirement; Yates remains passionate about the sport - he rides as an amateur, up to seven hours a day. "Lance is still a bike rider, isn't he?" he says. "He has not changed when it comes to the sport. OK, so he's friends now with people like George Bush - that'll alter your world perspective a bit. He's on a different level socially, but racing's still racing for him."

Perhaps. Armstrong now frequents the Oscars, dates Sheryl Crow and is rumoured to be heading towards politics once he hangs up his wheels. But still, you can imagine that the media star finds Yates' homespun philosophies refreshingly straightforward. "I run things as the riders need it, and I don't go around saying 'things weren't like that when I was racing, so you're not having it now, either'. With time, you lose the people [from the team] you've told enough times to do something, and end up with a group of riders that works well. Same as in anything, really, you can't imagine the guys in ICI or some big company would stand for it either."

A dab hand with chainsaws, he also tries to adapt to latest technological developments in sport, although Global Positioning System (GPS) and Yates do not enjoy a happy relationship yet. "Just as I was taking Lance somewhere, it bloody broke, didn't it," Yates says. "I couldn't' fix it, couldn't work out where we were. He wasn't too impressed - you know Lance, he always wants to be there yesterday."

The American, nicknamed "The President" by his team-mates, gets an understandably high proportion of management attention. But Yates is also personally responsible for overseeing seven riders in the squad, including the British national champion Roger Hammond.

So it is not all Lance, Lance, Lance for Yates, whose schedule, in general, is "far less hectic than at McCartney, where I was doing everything from booking hotels to trying to wheedle our way into getting a start at races. These days, with Armstrong, it's the races that call us."

But the day will come when Armstrong quits - and further down the line, the team, as all teams do, will come to an end and Yates will be out of one of his jobs. He is untroubled by the prospect. As he puts it, "people always need their hedges cut". Football managers take note.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for 'Cycling Weekly'