Vege-bikers put success on the menu

A cycling team with a difference are fuelled up and ready to impress in the Giro d'Italia

Digging deep is nothing new for Sean Yates. After years of spadework for the likes of Lance Armstrong in the whirl of big-time biking, the six-footer returned to the flower beds of Sussex for a living.

Now the tools are back in the garden shed again as Yates sifts his 15 years of racing experience to help the Linda McCartney team bloom as Tour de France candidates.

Only three months into their first fully-fledged European campaign, Yates' cosmopolitan mix find themselves accepted for the Giro d'Italia. "It's a major coup for us. On the world stage there's only one race that is bigger," Yates said. "We were accepted ahead of some Italian teams, and a couple of them were peeved. We have had a lot of publicity, and the McCartney name carries a lot of weight wherever we go. Sir Paul is very much behind the team and so is his family. It's quite a personal matter for him."

Having the Olympic road race champion Pascal Richard and the Olympic bronze medallist Max Sciandri in the team also helps, but a clause in riders' contracts, insisting they are vegetarians, has set imaginations racing. "What do you eat?" is usually asked before "what have you won?" For Heinz, the company behind the marketing of Linda McCartney vegetarian food, it could not be better.

"They are a huge company and they can see the value of the team for the brand," Yates said. "If we do a good job there is the potential to become a big team. It is up to us to make it work."

In his racing days he had been a valuable lieutenant to a string of leaders, notably Armstrong, Stephen Roche and Andy Hampsten, all winners of major Tours. Yates, nicknamed "the beast" because of his seemingly limitless work-rate, also won stages in the Tour and Vuelta a España, and wore the leader's yellow jersey in the Tour. So valued was Yates that Armstrong wanted him to keep racing as long as he could. "The intention was to continue with a new sponsor, but it failed to materialise, and then Lance got cancer. Once that chance had gone I thought that I would never come back into racing." So the wheels hung in place of fork and spade in Yates' shed.

Then Julian Clark saw the McCartney product at a supermarket, realised the sponsorship potential and was up at four in the morning writing a presentation. "Within a month we had a sponsorship," said Clark, who began with a British-based team and recruited Yates to fill in for an injured rider.

"It beats gardening and it pays better. They were interested in going bigger, so I was interested," said Yates.

Clark is ambitious. "The deal began as a one-year contract which was extended," he said. "Next year we will be up there budget-wise with the top 12 teams. We will be buying major riders to put us among the Division One teams."

Clark set up a base for his Euro-force, and his wife and two children, in a village near Toulouse airport. "It was too expensive to run the team from England, and have riders fly out to races," he explained.

Yates, who runs the team from his home, joins them for certain races and is feeling the responsibilities of command. "Riding a bike is the easiest job in the world," he said. "After you have spent five hours in the saddle, everyone is looking after you. Managing is so stressful. Sometimes I wish I was racing."

Setting up the travel, hotels, meals, racing and riders are new tasks for Yates. When they contested the Settimana Bergamasca race in Italy, the organisers provided two chefs to prepare vegetarian meals, and now the team could be hiring a chef for the Giro.

"There is nothing lacking in our form or our stamina because we are vegetarian," said a team racer, Matt Stephens. "There is so much information now about athletes' diets."

Stephens is 30 and last year offered to ride in McCartney's home-based team just for expenses. He came close to the major league after finishing in the top 10 at the 1995 world road race championship. He was negotiating with US Postal, the team of the Tour winner Armstrong, but the deal fell through. "The Giro is pretty daunting, but I am at the right age and I have a hell of a lot of experience. It is very exciting, and something I have wanted for a long time."

Yates knows the score only too well, having raced in the three major tours in France, Italy and Spain. "When you are competing against the world's best, it's like playing golf against Tiger Woods each week. Some of our guys are racing against riders they have only read about."

Stephens and his American, Australian, Danish, Irish, Italian, Norwegian and Swiss team-mates are getting to grips this week with the Tour de Romandie, a Swiss prelude to three weeks' graft on the Giro which opens in Rome on 13 May.