Two years ago, Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) missed out on the Tour de France podium by just 21 seconds. This year, the British climber returns with a stacked team at his disposal. The 2016 Tour white jersey winner might be a GC underdog, but confidence is running high after his team made the race for the majority of the Giro d'Italia.
"The goals for us, as you see from the line-up, is very much GC orientated," Matt White said with Yates alongside him at their press conference on Friday morning. "We're going to support Adam as well as we can throughout the Tour."
The 9:30 a.m. start was perhaps not to Yates's liking, but as he sipped a cup of coffee he began to open up about his aspirations. In previous press meetings, Yates has been somewhat shy and hesitant, but two years on from his last Tour de France it's not just his legs that have improved.
"Two years ago we didn't come here with the ambition of riding for GC," said the Criterium du Dauphine runner-up. "We just planned to stay out of trouble for the first bit, and then we were up there and second or third for a while. I've done the Giro and the Vuelta for experience. That didn't go as well as I thought it would, but again it was just for experience. I've had another year of training and another year of learning how everything works. Two years later I've got a lot more experience. I've raced the same guys all year and you get a feel for them and yourself. You feel more confident in your ability."
Yates needs more than luck on his side if he is to navigate through the opening nine days of this year's Tour unscathed. He certainly has the team to do just that, with Mat Hayman and Luke Durbridge designated guards for the potential crosswinds and cobbles of stage 9. Mikel Nieve is the team's designated super-domestique for the mountains, while a batch of the team's TTT squad are in the Vendee to rally around Yates on stage 3. This team is very much about GC, and their ongoing development in that department is backed up by the fact that they have created GC-minded teams both at the Giro d'Italia and at the Tour de France.
"I've ridden the cobbled stage three times," he said. "I rode the cobbles as a U23, but obviously it's a bit different on the big stage, but to be honest, it's more about the positioning and the wind beforehand. Once we're on the cobbles I'm pretty comfortable. We have a super strong team around me, and everyone is pretty much a big unit, other than Nieve and me. We just need some good luck and hope that we get through clean."
The only controversy heading into the Tour surrounding Mitchelton-Scott was over their decision to leave out Caleb Ewan. Whether that was down to form – Ewan hasn't won a race in months – or his ongoing contract situation or a mixture of both is debatable, but White stressed that the right call had been made. He even went so far as to suggest that Ewan would not have been on the team even if the rules hadn't dictated teams drop from nine riders to eight.
"If you look at this group of eight here and stuck Caleb onto this group it probably wouldn't have worked that well. The two guys who have worked with him over the last two years aren't here. Sprinters work with trains and the simple answer is no, you'd have to reshuffle the team. If it was just one guy and one change then the answer would be no," White said.
"In saying that, there are definitely stages that we want to target along the way. We're not just a one-dimensional team. We have a great TTT group and there are other individuals, like Daryl Impey, who are going to be able to go after stage wins along the way. We've got some pretty lofty goals but we've to aim high."
Learning from the Giro
Only Nieve survives from the team that raced the Giro, with Simon Yates and the rest of that squad resting at home. Mitchelton-Scott rode an extremely aggressive race in Italy, winning five stages, holding pink until Chris Froome's audacious attack on stage 19, and generally out-performing all expectations.
The Tour will not allow White and his riders to take on the race in the same way. Rivals and their teams are stronger, there's greater predictability in terms of tactics, and the parcours is more regular than say the Giro or the Vuelta, where mountain stages are often dropped into the opening week. This time around, Yates and his team will have to be more selective in their approach and perhaps more cautious with their style of racing.
"We're not going to be able to race the same way as we did at the Giro. The course doesn't allow for it. It's as simple as that. The course this year, they put in a few obstacles that will be entertaining but we've got to race as the course allows. The Giro and the Vuelta are very different to here," White added.
As for Yates's long-term future, the situation has not yet been publicized but both he and his brother Simon are set to sign new deals and stay on. Yates would not be drawn on the matter but White left a clear hint with the gathered media when he said, unprompted:
"Adam was fourth here a couple of years ago. We've had him since the start of his career and this is part of his development as a GC rider. He's made some very big inroads in the last two years, regardless of what happens in the Tour de France."
And with regards to Froome - the defending champion – Yates was unwilling to dwell too much on the booing the Team Sky rider faced on Thursday night from a hostile home crowd. The Mitchelton rider stated that the media had their responsibility to report fairly over the matter, but the podium contender did hope for a tired Froome after the Giro exploits.
"Hopefully he's tired. It was a pretty tough Giro. They raced pretty much every stage, so even with the extra week of recovery, it's still going to take its toll on you. Last year I did the Giro and was pretty tired and after that, I didn't race. Hopefully, he's tired."