I wouldn’t like to play poker against Simon Yates.
An impenetrable mask across two-thirds of his face, in the shape of those huge mirrored shades, leaves the other third impassive, expressionless, and weirdly intimidating.
He has that steely determined you’re-not-seriously-considering-f***ing-with-me-are-you? manner; so committed to being a pro sportsman that nothing – a laugh, a joke, a facial expression – will be allowed to muddy the waters.
Having said all this I would, on balance, rather play him at poker than race him on a bike.
At least we’d be in competition within the same post code.
Last year, 2018, he was within a single, poorly timed, total physical and emotional collapse, of winning the Giro d’Italia, before regrouping to bounce back and win the Vuelta Espana later in the year. In a sport where 99.99% of riders can’t physically win a Grand Tour, he nearly won two in a year.
He then entered 2019, and approached the Giro d’Italia like some kind of guerrilla revenge mission. Honing himself at altitude, like Rocky punching carcasses in preparation for Ivan Drago, he surfaced sporadically to give chilling interviews to the media.
Naming himself as favourite to win.
Suggesting his rivals should be scared of him.
All but proposing the actual bike race be cancelled so foregone was the conclusion.
And then, the Giro came around, and Yates was sluggish, off the pace, underprepared, overprepared – who knows? It was odd. Proof, if we needed it, that in pro cycling the whim of ‘the legs’ trumps science, logic, or confidence, every time.
Bad legs are bad legs.
Nothing you can do about it.
Today, on stage twelve of this Tour, it was great to have him back.
A kind of Pyrenean hors d’oevre, it was a steady mountain stage. A precursor to a big weekend in the hills. A break of forty riders dashed away up the road – that kind of day. General Classification contenders content to sit in. Rampaging stage hunters chasing the win.
Simon Yates among them.
On the second of the two climbs Yates was like the old Yates; yo-yoing up and down the road, in complete control, game face well and truly set. As they dived into the thirty kilometre descent to the finish there were three: Simon Yates, Pello Bilbao, and Gregor Mühlberger.Embed from Getty Images
Into the town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre it got tense.
Into the final couple of kilometres the displays of casual deliberate were in full effect. The wiping of the nose I’m-so-relaxed-I’m-engaging-in-some-personal-hygiene. The freewheel-with-knee-cocked-across-the-top-tube-what-finish-line, where?
Mind games were in play.
While Bilbao and Mühlberger fussed and fretted, peering over shoulders like a pair of gazelle sensing a hungry lion, Yates simply stared, impassive, through the yellow framed scaffolding on his face.
Is he bored?
Has he nodded off?
And then BANG!
At the final corner, two hundred and fifty metres from the line, one effort. A royal flush in one hand, a large whisky in the other, and before you know it the tiny Brit with the intercontinental accent has cleaned up.
Career Tour de France stage win number one.
Giving us a different winner of every stage of this race so far.
Don’t play him at poker, snap, tiddly-winks or tennis. Never attempt to read his facial expression or body language. And definitely don’t agree to race him on your bike.
(Top Image: Ciclismo Italia via Flickr CC)