Team Sky’s Ben Swift seems to have been with us a long time but the fact is he’s that he’s still only 28 years old, just coming into his prime as a rider.
And if any of us thought his third place in the 2014 Milan-Sanremo was a fluke we had that notion debunked when the man from Rotherham stepped up one place on the podium to second spot behind controversial winner, Arnaud Démare (F des J & France) in this year’s race – Démare having been accused of taken pace from his team car on the Cipressa climb whilst coming back from a crash.
Swift first appeared on the radar way back in 2003 as the silver medalist in the British National Schoolboys’ Scratch Race and the following year there was gold in the Junior Points.
In 2005 he and another young man who’s done not too badly – a certain Geraint Thomas – won the UiV (U23 competition) in the Dortmund Six Day.
The 2006 season yielded silver in the British Team Pursuit Championship but 2007 saw a landmark win in the major Italian race the Giro delle Regioni.
It was 2008 when he really announced his arrival though, with three big wins in Italian U23 races; the Coppa della Pace, the Coppa Giuseppe Romita and a stage in the pro team’s talent scouts ‘shop window’ the Giro della Valle d’Aosta – and to cap the season there was a fourth spot in the U23 World Road Race Championships.
Katusha it was who signed him for 2009 and there was a stage win in the Tour of Britain.
After a winter of political wrangling he moved across to Team Sky for 2010 – where he’s been ever since – and took a stage and the GC in the Tour de Picardie.
There were five wins in 2011: two stages in the Tour Down Under, a stage in the Tour of Castilla y Leon, a stage in the Tour of Romandie and a stage in the Tour of California.
In 2012 he moved back to the track taking gold in the scratch race, silver in the points and silver in the madison with Thomas on the Melbourne boards.
There were also two stage wins in the Tour of Poland, that year.
The 2013 season was blighted by injury but 2014 saw him back with stage wins in the Coppi Bartali and Pais Vasco as well as that stand out third place in la Primavera.
Last season he won a stage in Coppi Bartali and this year so far has notched up four second places; in stages in the Tour Down Under, Ruta Del Sol and Paris-Nice as well as Milan-Sanremo.
We caught up with him as he took a break from racing after the Tour of Catalonia…
You said you were in Iceland, Ben?
“Yeah, my programme changed, I had a little time off and I asked my girlfriend, Lizzie if she fancied going away for a few days.
“She suggested Iceland and I said, ‘why not ?’
“I’m actually on the mobile from the middle of a volcanic plain, it’s barren, minus four, empty – we’ve not seen another car for an hour… it’s definitely not the place for a training camp!”
Tell us about your preparation for Milan-Sanremo, please.
“I didn’t really do any specific preparation for the race; after placing third in 2014 I consciously prepared last year and it didn’t really work out so I decided that this year I’d just go for a strong start to the year and go into the race and take it as it came – which obviously worked out well for me.”
How do you have such an affinity with the race?
“I’m not sure, I always thought it would be a race which suited me; long distance with hills in the finale.
“It suits me better if the weather isn’t so good though because that reduces the size of the group at the finish – the first year I rode it the weather was good but I do prefer if the weather is bad because there aren’t nearly as many left to contest the sprint.”
What was the Team Sky plan?
“It was an ‘open’ plan with four of us – Geraint, Kwiatkowski, Elia Viviani and I all having our opportunities.
“There wasn’t really a pecking order; it was a shame we lost Geraint and Pete Kennaugh to one of the crashes – Geraint was going to attack on the Poggio.
“If he’d got the gap he’d take a bit of bringing back.
“And Pete was going to attack before that on the Cipressa.”
A very nervous race with lots of crashes…
“Yeah, even from way out on the Turchino Pass it got sketchy with riders fighting for position – I thought; “come on, there’s a 160 k to go, guys !” and sat back, there were constant crashes – folks stepping into the road, parked cars…”
The ascents of the Cipress and Poggio didn’t seem quite as crazy as usual?
“Definitely, the Cipressa was pretty quick but wasn’t aggressive; it didn’t feel that quick to me although they said later we went up it pretty quick – but it wasn’t climbed pretty steadily.
“And Poggio was sedate with no attacks ‘til near the top – the weather had a hand in that with it being a headwind on both climbs.
“The tactics have changed too: it’s a hard sprint at the end so the favourites want to have a couple of guys with them into the finale.”
Were the Stannard on the Cipressa and Kwiatkowski on the Poggio moves made on your behalf?
“No, they were planned, as I said, Pete Kennaugh was going to go on the Cipressa but he went down in a crash.
“Kwiato’s move off the Poggio was brilliant for me, it kept it hard all the way into the sprint, usually there’s a lull at that point and it ‘swells’ at that point.
“It was a good move – it took Cancellara to get him back.”
We have to ask… Démare?
“I can’t comment, I didn’t see it but I’ve heard all the rumours – it’s a grey area for sure.
“We all use cars’ slipstream to come back up through the field after a puncture or crash and we know about ‘sticky bottles’ but if you’re hanging on to a car for 10 seconds then that’s a different story.
“But the only way I can think of to combat it would be to have cameras on the cars then replay it after the finish – like they do with the linesmen in football.”
Any ‘what ifs’?
“I’ve thought about it a lot and spoken to Rod Ellingworth about it but I can’t think what else I could have done.
“I had to adjust when Gaviria crashed but then you might argue that if he hadn’t crashed he might have won it?
“Once I’d done that I got through pretty clean though – it was good for me that Edvald Boasson Hagen drove hard into the sprint, usually there’s a lull at the corner but not this time, he kept the speed up.”
Milan-Sanremo then straight to Catalonia, heavy duty…
“You’ve heard the cliché that Milan-Sanremo is the easiest race to finish but hardest to win – it’s true but there’s a lot of stress and it is 300 kilometres in the saddle.
“The Ronde, Paris-Roubaix or a Tour mountain stage are all harder on the body but stress-wise, Milan-Sanremo stays with you for a couple of days.”
Four second places so far; that must be frustrating?
“Yeah, if those had been wins it would be a massive season already – Tour Down Under, Paris-Nice, Milan-Sanremo and Catalonia but I’m just happy to ‘up there.’”
“When I come off my break it’s the Amstel and Liege-Bastogne-Liege; and I want to be good for the Tour of Yorkshire at the end of April and then there’s the Tour of California in May.”
Final question, Paris-Tours looks like one for you…
“Yeah but it’s not World Tour so the team doesn’t ride it; by that time of the season we’re running short of riders – it’s a long season…”
It surely is; here at VeloVeritas we hope it won’t be too long before Ben can get his arms in the air for his first win of 2016.