Kristoff was no surprise to us – especially with Paolini as his wingman; Cancellara – enough said.
But the man on the third step of the podium was a big – and it must be said, pleasant – surprise, Sky’s Ben Swift, back from the wilderness.
Last season was compromised by injury picked up in 2012 and subsequent surgery but there were green shoots of recovery to be seen at the start of this season – two podiums and a top ten in Nokere.
When we saw him right there at the top of the Cipressa we thought, ‘wow!’ and he didn’t disappoint, coming late and not a million miles away from Cancellara in a sodden, hectic finale in Sanremo.
The first entry of note in Swift’s palmares is second in the 2003 British novices scratch championship on the track.
The following year he took his first national champion’s jersey, in the junior points race; and by 2005 had a win in the Dortmund UIV Cup (U23 Six Day) to his credit, partnered by Geraint Thomas.
The big international wins began to come in 2007 when he took a stage in the major Italian U23 stage race, the Giro Delle Regione. His track roots weren’t neglected though, with victory in the European U23 team pursuit championship.
The following season he established himself as one of the big U23 names in Italy with wins in the Coppa della Pace, Coppa G. Romita and a stage in the Pro Tour talent scout’s shop window, the Giro della Valle d’Aosta. And there was a fourth place in the U23 Worlds to boot – fifth was a chap named Rui Costa…
Whilst he had a spell as a stagiaire with Barloworld in 2007 it was 2009 when he signed his first pro contract, with Russian Pro Tour squad, Katusha. Second place in Nokere Koerse and top three’s in stages of the Tour of Qatar, Pais Vasco and Giro d’Italia were capped with a win in stage seven of the Tour of Britain – a strong debut by any standard.
The 2010 season started in controversial fashion with a tug of war for his services between Katusha and new kids on the block – Sky. As might be expected of a team sponsored by Rupert Murdoch the men in black and blue got their way and Swift’s allegiance switched from Moscow to London. The season didn’t quite sparkle as much as observers perhaps expected; but the early part of it was spent with the GB team looking for team pursuit gold in Copenhagen.
Despite a 3:55 in the final the rainbow jersey eluded the GB men and it was the Tour de Picardie where Swift scored his first win of 2010; soon adding to it with the final GC in the same race.
There were no such problems of a slow start to 2011 with two stage wins in the Tour Down Under starting the year nicely for him, followed by stage five of the Vuelta Castilla y Leon, stage five of the Tour of Romandie and stage two of the Tour of California.
Road ambitions were shelved for 2012 with the World Track Championships being the spring priority – and hopefully a springboard to the Olympic team pursuit. Swift failed to make the victorious GB foursome – but enjoyed an excellent Track Worlds with gold in the scratch, silver in the points and the same colour of medal in the madison with Geraint Thomas.
On the road, despite his crash injuries, he took two stage wins and the points jersey in the Tour of Poland. His injuries and subsequent surgery came back to haunt him last year and there was little joy for the genial man from Rotherham.
But Sunday’s epic across Northern Italy announced with a double underline that he’s back.
We spoke to him the day after his excellent performance…
Congratulations, Ben – what was the Sky plan for the race?
“Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen were leaders and I was a protected rider.
“Coming in to the finale, after we heard that Geraint had problems, Eddy and I talked and agreed that he’d cover attacks on the Poggio and I’d save it for the sprint.”
Is Milan-Sanremo the longest race you’ve ever ridden?
“In terms of distance yes, previously it would be the Tour of Flanders at around 270 K; but in terms of time on the bike, no – I rode a Giro stage where we were on the bike for eight hours, 45 minutes down on Carlos Sastre who won the stage.”
Did you prepare specifically for the Primavera?
“No, because I got the call to ride, late – I only knew I would be riding it from two weeks before when they announced that the Pompeiana climb was being taken off the agenda.
“It wasn’t a bad thing because it meant that I was relaxed about riding it and had no real pressure or expectation on me.”
The weather looked gruesome.
“I’ve still got numb hands; my finger tips are still not working properly.
“The worst time for me was with around 100 K to go; when you approach the first of the Capi, then you start to focus on the finish – that was when I stripped back to just my jersey and arm warmers, you soon get warm on the climbs.”
Calorie intake must be vital over that distance?
“I was really conscious that I had to keep eating, which isn’t easy in those conditions – but I only drank one bottle during the entire race.
“But I must have drunk a lot of rain water as I had to pee five times!”
Are the three Capos where it all starts to kick off?
“Yeah, you start to warm up because you’re climbing and to get excited because you realise that you’re coming in towards the finish at last.”
You looked good on the Cipressa.
“We always knew that would be a vital point in the race – I had good legs and was able to move up the outside; being in control and at the front gave me a lot of confidence for the finale.”
The ascent of the Poggio didn’t seem quite as demented as usual?
“I was waiting for the attacks to come but they never really materialised – it’s the first time I’ve ridden Milan-Sanremo so I don’t know how this year compares, but guys were saying after the finish that it was pretty quick on the Poggio.
“But everyone was cold and there was a head wind so it was pretty tough.”
Sonny Colbrelli got daylight in Sanremo for Bardiani; did you think that might stick?
“It actually reminded me of a track race in the streets of Sanremo with riders playing poker and letting others make the chase – but after seven hours in the rain the teams who still had a couple of guys left weren’t going to let anyone steal it at that stage.”
It looked hectic from the red kite to the finish.
“A little bit, I was boxed, I tried to follow Sagan’s wheel but there were a lot of guys with the same idea.
“I committed to coming through on the barriers and it only opened up for me late. With the benefit of hindsight, Sagan’s wheel was the wrong one to follow – I could see on the climbs that he didn’t have his usual sparkle.
“If I could do it again I’d chose a different wheel – but those last few K all happen so quickly . . .
“But when I think about it I have to be happy, it was my first Milan-Sanremo and it’s certainly a race I’d like to focus on for the future – albeit I’ll have to go and have a look at that Pompeiana climb at some stage.
“But being on the podium is great for my confidence, last year was horrible, the lack of results plays on your confidence so it’s good to move back up the pecking order.
“I just need a win, now!”
What did you do today? (Monday)
“I did two hours with Adam Blythe, Geraint, Joe Dombrowski and Peter Kennaugh – I’m staying in Nice with Pete before we head off to the Coppi-Bartali stage race.
“It was nice run with time for a coffee.”
Coppi-Bartali and then?
“I’m really looking forward to that, it’s at a slightly lower level and will take me back to my Academy days in Italy with Pete.
“Then it’s Pais Vasco, a focus on the Amstel, maybe the Fleche, the Tour of California, the Tour de Suisse and the Nationals – a really good programme.”
With congratulations again to Ben – somehow we don’t think that first win is too far away.
And more news about a successful young Englishman abroad:
VeloVeritas regular, Douglas Dewey (Nantes Atlantique) scored a solo win on Sunday in the Fleche de Locmine, one of the Elite National calendar in France and a result you can be sure won’t go unnoticed by the talent scouts.