When talking to most Grand Tour contenders, past and present, the Tour de France almost invariably appears somewhere in the conversation as their big dream race – the event that drives them on in training and racing. After all, the Tour's the race that everyone – riders and public alike – considers the centrepiece of the cycling calendar. To quote Spain's first Tour de France winner, Federico Martin Bahamontes, back in 1959, "The Tour is the Tour."
But Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is, at least for now, one of the exceptions to that general rule, recently telling Spanish website Ciclo21 that he was currently "not interested in the Tour de France". Rather, as he explained to Cyclingnews on the morning of the last stage of the Ruta del Sol, for now it's the Giro d'Italia that is wholly in his sights.
"I have a deep passion to try to win this race [the Giro], but, just at this moment, the Tour isn't doing anything for me," Yates says.
"And that's OK. I think some people are the same; some people are the opposite, too. They only want to go and do the Tour; that’s what drives them to get out of bed in the morning. They want to go and race it and win it. At this moment in time, it's not me, and that's not a problem."
Yates cites "what happened last year" at the Giro d'Italia – when he was in the lead and within grasping distance of overall victory, but then lost almost at the last fence – as one of the reasons why he feels so strongly about the Italian Grand Tour.
But, interestingly, Yates says he doesn't have the same driving motivation behind him for Paris-Nice, despite taking the lead on stage 6, but then losing the lead to Marc Soler (Movistar) on the final, rain-soaked day.
"I enjoy Paris-Nice – it's a good race – and I've done it every year since I've been a professional. It's a very important part of the season," Yates says, "but I'm not going there to target it.
"As everyone knows, I'm going 100 per cent for the Giro. For me, personally, it's not the correct way to go about being ready for the Giro.
"So I'm not going to get to Paris-Nice super lean, super in-form. It's also often cold, so if you arrive there with five per cent body fat, it's not so nice. I'll arrive a few kilos heavier and do what I can."
Simon Yates lines out the Ruta del Sol peloton (Bettini Photo)
Testing his legs in Andalucia
The 2018 Vuelta a España winner said he has had a very good block of winter training in the off-season, and the evidence was there in the latter part of the Vuelta a Andalucia last week, as Yates dropped the rest of the field to win on the toughest mountain stage of the race in Sierra Nevada.
Almost equally impressively, Yates also went on a very long break on the final day through the hills of central Andalucia, sealing the king of the mountains prize in the process and only being reeled in with some 30 kilometres to go as the roads finally flattened out en route to the Mediterranean coastline.
But as Yates explains, the better winter is not because he's changed his training programme from top to bottom. Rather, there have been "fewer distractions, fewer interruptions".
"It just flowed more smoothly than other years, and that's also because in the previous couple of winters I've tried doing the same thing rather than going somewhere different. Like, a few years ago, we'd all go to South Africa or somewhere else. It was just a lot of travelling, a lot of interruptions getting to places, whereas this winter it was pretty flawless."
Yates was not feeling so good on the first two days of the Ruta del Sol – something he says might have been due to feeling a shade ring-rusty in what was his first two days of racing. But by the final weekend, if not firing on all cylinders, he was definitely firing on a lot more of them.
"I feel very healthy. It was just one of those things: sometimes the legs don't respond the way you want them to," Yates says, discussing why he had not been so strong in the first couple of stages. "And also I didn't come here to try to win the race overall. This is my first race of the season, so I didn't have any big expectations of anything. I came here to get fit and help the guys.
"Yesterday [Saturday] was more of a bonus than anything else."
Still, Yates' victory in Spain was the earliest in his career, with his previous first victories of the season coming on March 10, both in 2017 and 2018, at Paris-Nice. He's also the first of the three Grand Tour winners of 2018 to raise his arms in victory in 2019.
Apart from a good winter, the other change in the first part of his 2019 is that Yates has avoided travelling to any of the Middle Eastern races, which is something he feels has benefited him.
"It means fewer interruptions to training. I went there [Abu Dhabi Tour] last year. It was OK, but it was probably a bit too easy. But now they've changed it. Last year we'd do 100 kilometres in one direction, turn around at a roundabout, and then do 100 kilometres back. It wasn't really good for me.
"At that particular race [Abu Dhabi] last year, there was only one climb in the entire event, and I got there and I was sick on the day. So I just wasted over a week. And I also don't like racing in the heat unless I've had a long adaption. I went from below zero degrees to whatever it was there – 30C or 40C. It's a big stress on the body. I don't think it was the correct preparation."
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) on the 2018 Vuelta podium (Bettini Photo)
Keeping Yorkshire in mind
As for the far end of the year, there's a hilly World Championships on home soil in Great Britain, which is not far, either, from his hometown of Bury. With those factors in mind, Yates agrees it would be hard not to have the Worlds at the back of his mind, but he is cautious about his options for now.
"I have nothing planned for that part of the year yet. I go to the Giro and then afterwards my programme is completely empty. We'll just see from there," Yates says.
Recently Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) told Cyclingnews he is contemplating a possible ride in the Vuelta a España as part of his Worlds build up, and Yates says that he may take that road as well. However, he has some reservations about making the Vuelta his second Grand Tour of 2019, too.
"I've actually never come out of a Grand Tour feeling that well. Some people always find form magically out of these Grand Tours, but I've never been able to master that," Yates says.
"Maybe I'll try some different things and see what happens, but a lot will depend on how I handle the end of the year. Obviously last year‚ I wanted to try to win the Worlds as well as the Vuelta, but like I said, I didn't come out of the Vuelta going well.
"So if I can change that a little bit, maybe I'll go to the Vuelta. And if not, then I'll do something else."
For now, in any case, Yates is in good shape, racing how he wants and looking forward to the Giro d'Italia. The Tour de France, at least for now, can wait.