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Cobbled streets, grew up in a puddle, gravel for breakfast – it’s the “Sean Yates conundrum”


Whether you’re a cyclist or not, here in the UK you’ll be familiar with the professional northerner.

We’re talking Geoff Boycott, Michael Parkinson and – here’s one for the 1990’s post-pub TV fans – Terry Christian.

Grew up in a puddle, gravel for breakfast, cobbled streets, down’t mines at seven, university of life, tells it like it is, hard as nails, tough as old boots, chips and gravy…

I’m a northerner myself, as it happens.

I’ve unfortunately had to maintain my amateur status having married a southerner. Whilst I’m writing this, the professionals are busy building dry-stone walls and wrestling sheep.

Proper graft.

My kids, for their sins, are north/south hybrids, and have the accents to prove it. I’m currently saving up to go private and book them in for vowel reconstruction surgery.

Round these parts (i.e. The North) whilst out on my bike, I meet plenty of northerners (as you might imagine). Most of them are thoroughly friendly.

A lot of the time they almost give the impression that the north/south divide is a fiction, a relic, and a hangover of petty regionalism from a different era.

The solution is to mention Box Hill.

Box Hill is a ‘climb’ favoured by the cyclists of Surrey. Surrey, you may be aware, is not in the north.

If you’re not a fan of petty regionalism you may want to look away now.

Where I ride, where the borders of Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cumbria meet, there is a widely held suspicion that Box Hill would rank as a mere lump in the road.

An inconvenience.

Barely a climb.

If you talk of having ridden up Box Hill the northern cyclist will scoff, and splutter, and say: “Great Dun Fell, Cross o’ Greet, the Buttertubs, Tan Hill, Hardknott Pass…” and then wander off shaking their head.

They’ll still be out there now, somewhere, reeling off names of northern hills that are harder to cycle up than Box Hill.

Southerners may read this as a classic northern chip on the shoulder. They are almost certainly right, but having never ridden Box Hill myself I couldn’t possibly comment.

The fact is, I couldn’t even find it, so well hidden was it amongst the gently rolling Surrey countryside.

Much as I grew up thoroughly infused with northern-ness, and taught from a young age (it was part of the school curriculum) that the northerner was physically superior to the southerner as a matter of scientific fact, there is a spanner in the works.

It’s known as the “Sean Yates conundrum.”

Because he’s from Surrey.

Home of the classic southerner.

Of bankers, and hedge fund managers, and massive cars. Of cyclists on Pinarellos wearing Rapha with a copy of Rouleur tucked under their arm.

And Box Hill.

It’s confusing.

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Yates’ nickname was ‘the animal’. He was a man who could sit on the front of a pro-peloton and drag it along for kilometre after kilometre at a pace of his choosing. He was known to descend mountains like a lead weight with an anvil attached to it.

He could climb. He could ride the cobbles. He had grit.

Northern grit.

Did he really get this from riding up Box Hill?

Perhaps he’s the exception that proves the rule. Who’s modern and hard?

Ian Stannard springs to mind. He looks northern, he rides northern, his name sound pretty northern to me, and yet his Wikipedia disagrees.

An Essex lad, allegedly.

Yes, that Essex. In the south.

I may well be a broad-minded man-of-the-world but I’m still a northern cyclist with a chip on my shoulder and a sneery view of Box Hill (which I’ve never ridden, I hasten to remind you).

So what am I supposed to make of all this?

You’ll be telling me that Bradley Wiggins spends his weekends stuffing ferrets down his bib-shorts next.


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