Cycling: Yates the gardener with a director's eye

Last sunday the former British Tour de France leader Sean Yates spent seven hours reeling out instructions to bike riders in a labyrinth of farm lane cobbles in northern France. Then, on Wednesday, he had an appointment to chop down a tree in Tonbridge.

Yates has oscillated between these two radically different existences for almost eight years, after retiring from a distinguished career with big-name squads like Peugeot and Motorola in 1996.

One day in every three in 2003, Yates is team manager with the top cycling squad, CSC, owned and run by the 1996 Tour de France winner, Bjarne Riis. He is the first Briton ever to hold such a prestigious position in the sport. On the other two, Yates works as a gardener or builder's labourer near his home town of Forest Row, Sussex.

"They're both outdoor jobs," said Yates, a mild-mannered, wiry-thin 42-year-old, by way of a more or less useful explanation. He does admit, though, that when he chats to his work-mates on the scaffolding mid-week, "they think I'm a bit nuts".

"I've got three kids and, together with cycling, gardening's the one thing I'm qualified to do," he explains. "Directing is an easier way of earning a living than building or hedge-cutting."

Still a keen amateur rider who regularly gives local time trialists a panning in 25-mile events in the UK, Yates' ventures back into sport at a professional level were not so successful.

After taking a job as director of Linda McCartney, the country's first fully Continental-based team in over a decade, he found himself doing everything from signing bike riders to booking flights. "It was manic," Yates says bluntly.

Then when McCartney capsized in a miasma of unpaid debts in January 2001, it was back to getting up at 7am for a job on the building site.

"Or 4am, to go out training on me bike first," he adds in his soft Sussex burr.

Twelve months on, following another, even briefer crack at directing with the chronically underfunded Iteamnova squad, Yates was en route to buy a trailer for his gardening when he received a call from Riis, asking him to join CSC.

"He'd heard about me, of course, but the fact there was a New Zealand mechanic, Craig Geater, who went on from McCartney to CSC, also helped," says Yates, who seems unfazed by his high-profile job.

A key part of his new role is what Riis calls "coaching", but Yates would call it coaxing, "trying to get the best out of the riders rather than just yelling and telling them they're soft gits. It's far less work than with McCartney."

While Yates has a group of seven riders on whom he has to write monthly and race reports, another, more dynamic role is directing the squad car in World Cup races like last weekend's Paris-Roubaix. The next time he will be feeding riders information down a race radio will be in early May, somewhere in Switzerland.

Mentally, the work is draining. "You do disconnect, that's for sure," he muses. For now, though, both his riders and his gardening clients can relax: Yates, famous for never quitting races, has no intention of disconnecting from either role.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly