Sky searches for Yates replacement in tough market

Sean Yates headed the most successful stage racing outfit in history in 2012, but Sky must start from scratch after his sudden departure

MILAN (VN) — Sky hit the top by winning the Tour de France just three months ago, but must start over again from scratch without Sean Yates. The team — which made an unprecedented run through Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné with Yates at the wheel — announced on Sunday afternoon that it had split with its senior sports director and, essentially, started a new chapter.

The Englishman left in the haze surrounding the Lance Armstrong doping scandal, but said it was for health reasons. Sky decided only two weeks ago to reconfirm with its staff and riders its zero-tolerance doping stance. Its move came after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency published its “Reasoned Decision” and supporting evidence against Armstrong on October 10. Team principal David Brailsford announced earlier this month that he would require team staff and riders to sign a pledge stating that they never engaged in doping practices or leave the team.

When American Bobby Julich left his post as Sky race coach and admitted his own EPO use late last week, critics pointed fingers at Yates. He raced alongside Armstrong at Motorola from 1992 to 1996, part of a career that included wearing the Tour’s yellow jersey. After he retired, he began a career as a sports director and spent several years in Armstrong’s teams. In 2005, he was a director for Discovery Channel at the Tour when Armstrong won his seventh straight title. And in 2009, he was with Astana for Armstrong’s comeback and third overall in the Tour. Combined with a photograph of Yates alongside the drugs courier dubbed “Motoman” in USADA’s evidence, the critics argued it was all too much.

“I realize the timing of my retirement will lead to speculation given what is going on in the sport,” Yates said in a statement, “but I can walk away knowing I have done nothing wrong.”

Yates was diagnosed with heart problems before joining Sky for its debut year in 2010. He said that given his health problems and time away from home, he wants to focus on his family. His decision, regardless of the reason, puts Sky in a jam. He was the most experienced and only Brit in the young team’s arsenal of sports directors, and helped lead Bradley Wiggins to become the first British Tour winner in July.

Sky now faces a last-minute search to find a replacement director that can help lead the reigning Tour champion as he sets his sights on the Giro d’Italia in 2013. The team needs someone with Yates’ know-how and ability to connect to the riders, but without the baggage that often comes with those that raced in the 1990s. To whom will it turn?

Promoting from within appears impossible given the choices: Marcus Ljungqvist, Servais Knaven and Nicolas Portal. (Dutchman Steven De Jongh, according to a report in The Telegraph, is also leaving the team.) Knaven heads the classics team and Ljungqvist and Portal are relatively inexperienced. The team’s coaches — Shane Sutton, Rod Ellingworth, Tim Kerrison and Kurt Asle Arvesen — are working overtime to fill the gap left by Bobby Julich, who told VeloNews before he quit the team that Sky was already looking for a fifth coach.

Brailsford will likely be considering replacements from outside, but very few are available. Allan Peiper just took a new job with BMC Racing and Luca Guercilena replaced Johan Bruyneel at RadioShack-Nissan. Rolf Aldag admitted to doping in 2007 and has joined Omega Pharma-Quick Step as its new sport & development manager, regardless. Brailsford was not immediately available for comment.

Brailsford might consider Aussie Bradley McGee, but he left Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank earlier this month to take a position with the New South Wales Institute of Sport. Or maybe Brailsford will call on former High Road director, Italian Valerio Piva, whose Katusha team is experiencing its own shake-ups. Keeping a British feel, he could also reach out to recently retired riders Roger Hammond or Daniel Lloyd. The Canadian Steve Bauer shuttered his Spidertech-C10 program earlier this month and could also be on the market, despite his assurances that the Canadian Pro Continental team will return in 2014.

Regardless of Brailsford’s selection for the high-dollar British squad’s lead director position, one thing is clear: big changes are afoot at Sky and the team will largely be starting from square one with its stage racing staff in 2013.