After exiting this year's Giro d'Italia, Simon Yates spent more than 10 hours in an ambulance as he travelled northwards to Varese, where he would quarantine for a further 10 days near the Mitchelton-Scott service course. Beyond waiting on PCR tests, his schedule was now bare, but he didn't care to fill too many of the empty hours of isolation by watching the race he had just left. His own disappointment, understandably, was company enough.
"I tuned in every now and then. I didn't have much to do during those 10 days, but I wasn't really fixating on it. I think everybody would understand that it was hard to watch," Yates tells Cyclingnews. "Of course, I was happy to see Tao [Geoghegan Hart] win. He's a good guy, and I've known him a long time now, but it was obviously very hard to watch."
Having won Tirreno-Adriatico the month before, and as one of just three previous Grand Tour victors on the start list, Yates had arrived in Sicily atop the first echelon of favourites, and he underlined that status with an assured display in the opening time trial in Palermo. Two days later, however, he was surprisingly dropped on Mount Etna, conceding over three minutes, and he betrayed clear signs of struggling, too, in the rain-swept mountains of the Sila on stage 6.
Something was obviously awry, but for the opening week of the Giro, Yates was at a loss to explain precisely what, at least until team doctor Matteo Beltemacchi ordered a rapid coronavirus test when he reported a headache following stage 7 to Brindisi. Like most of the peloton – indeed, like most of the world – Yates had spent the preceding months taking every imaginable precaution to avoid contracting COVID-19. Now, paradoxically, being diagnosed with the virus came almost as a relief, as it offered a firm explanation for his travails.
"I'd come in with great form. In the prologue, I felt great, and then from there it just started to unravel, so there was obviously something wrong," Yates says. "And it was a little bit of relief. I mean, when I received the positive test for COVID, my first reaction was relief, because I just felt something was wrong. Then obviously as time goes on, you become more and more disappointed that you couldn't fight for the race."
Yates has endured his share of heartbreak at the Giro before, of course – most notably in 2018. He had been the race's outstanding performer from the moment it left Israel, winning three stages and wearing the maglia rosa for two weeks, but two days shy of Rome, he lost almost 40 minutes on a turbulent afternoon on the Finestre.
That was a cruel defeat, but one Yates could accept with stoicism, acknowledging that he had simply fallen victim to his own exhaustion, and he was also able to bounce back and win the Vuelta a España at the end of that summer. This latest setback perhaps felt more unfair, and was certainly more frustrating, as Yates was eliminated by a virus rather than a rival, and his season was ended to boot. Not that he is much given to complaining.
"It's just disappointing that I'm having to wait another year, really, to have a crack," he says.
Yates is just as equable when conversation turns to the security of the Giro's coronavirus bubble, which so dominated headlines after he left the race. The Mitchelton-Scott team abandoned en masse when four staff members were diagnosed with COVID-19 on the first rest day, and Jumbo-Visma followed suit, while EF Pro Cycling called for the Giro to be brought to an early end, citing "a clearly compromised bubble".
"It's hard to say, because I don't know where I got the virus from," Yates says. "There wasn't one moment where I thought, 'You know what? We're very exposed here,' but it definitely wasn't a really concrete bubble. We were sharing hotels with regular people who were just on holiday or whatever, but it's difficult to really separate everybody.
"We have our own chef, we have our own space, but that's not everybody in the whole organisation, and they were still sharing the same hotel, so it really is difficult to separate everybody. But I think we did a good job as a collective peloton."
Indeed, despite contracting COVID-19 in the line of duty, Yates maintains that professional cycling's decision to press ahead with a revised autumn calendar during the pandemic was vindicated by the fact that the three Grand Tours and four of the five Monuments were able to take place.
"I mean, if we hadn't had any races this year, we'd be talking about different problems: teams not surviving and all sorts of stuff," Yates says. "I think it's great that we managed to complete the season as we could, really. It's just obviously disappointing for me to not have a crack at my main goal, which was the Giro."
Yates is speaking over the phone from Turin, where Mitchelton-Scott's riders were undergoing medical tests over the weekend ahead of the new campaign. The period of inactivity in October curtailed his usual off-season running regimen, but Yates is on the bike again and preparing for 2021.
"I'm completely recovered now, back into training and I'm feeling good," he says, although the weekend provided an opportunity for another, thorough assessment of his convalescence. Each case is different. For every Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who marked a rapid recovery from the coronavirus with a brace in the Milan derby, there are plenty more who report symptoms long after their initial diagnosis.
"I'm not too worried about it now. I'm here in Italy doing some extensive testing on the heart and everything, just to be sure that there are no problems," says Yates. "I didn't really have anything: it just felt like a common cold, but I lost my sense of smell and taste, and that has taken a long time to come back. Even now, I don't think my smell is back to 100 per cent, but I can taste everything again and, like I said before, I feel healthy, I feel good."
The pre-season gathering in Italy was Yates' first without his brother, Adam, who has left Mitchelton-Scott to join Ineos Grenadiers for 2021. It marks a considerable change for the 28-year-olds, but even though the brothers turned professional on the same team at the same time, they followed different paths to GreenEdge, and they have lined out in just four Grand Tours together since joining in 2014.
"For sure, it's going to be different, it's going to be strange. Already doing meetings with the team and the medicals we're doing now, it feels strange that he's not here doing them with me, but at the same time, life goes on," Simon Yates says. "We raced against each other before we were professional, so I don't think it's going to be a huge problem. Only time will tell; I don't know what his race programme is yet, so I don't know if we'll actually be fighting each other for victories down the road."
Both Simon and Adam Yates' contracts were due to expire at the end of 2020. Despite the uncertainty that surrounded Mitchelton-Scott's future at the start of the summer, when the Manuela Fondacion was briefly floated as a future backer, and despite manager Shayne Bannan's subsequent departure, Simon signed on for two more years in August after owner Gerry Ryan confirmed that he would continue his sponsorship through 2022. By then, rumours of Adam's departure for Ineos had hardened into fact, and an official announcement arrived just two days later.
"We spoke about it," Simon Yates says when asked if he had attempted to convince his brother to stay put. "I won't go into detail, because that's more of a private matter, but we spoke about it. Like I said before, life goes on and sometimes you have to make difficult decisions."
Yates faces decisions of his own in 2021. Assuming it goes ahead, the rescheduled Olympic Games road race is an obvious target, given that it features some 4,865m of total climbing, but Yates is still unsure whether his road to Tokyo will run through the Giro or the Tour de France. Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a hasty revision of the 2020 season, he was set to ride the Giro before building towards the Olympics, but he is not guaranteed to follow that template now.
"From what I understand with the dates, there's not much racing between the Giro and the Olympics, but if you race the Tour, there is almost no time to get to Tokyo, so it's a hard decision either way. That's why we're kind of waiting for the parcours and all the dates to be confirmed," says Yates, which means his 2021 schedule won't be outlined in full until after the Giro route is presented in early January.
Like the bulk of the WorldTour peloton, Yates seems likely to start his season in Europe, and he's optimistic that a year of fewer interruptions is in prospect. Beyond that, his future is unwritten in a season that he suggests will be "different but the same".
"I don't have any worries or concerns about coming back to a high level," Yates says. "Before the Giro, I showed myself at Tirreno. I was going really well there, and I felt like I was really on track, so I still believe I can win a Grand Tour."
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