Interview: Team Sky's Ben Swift reflects on Romandie win & looks ahead to Tour of California

Young Yorkshireman is relishing the racing as he notches up win number four of 2011

by Simon_MacMichael   May 2, 2011  

Ben Swift wins Stage 6 of the 2011 Santos Tour Down Under (copyright John Veage/Santos Tour Down Under).jpg

Team Sky's Ben Swift yesterday took the final stage of the Tour of Romandie in Geneva to claim his fourth victory of what is turning out to be a great 2011 season for the 23-year-old from Rotherham. With the repercussions of his controversial transfer from Katusha now a distant memory, he is clearly enjoying his racing this year, and looking forward to the Amgen Tour of California in a fortnight's time and next month’s British road championships, as he explains to road.cc.

The final kilometres of yesterday’s closing stage of the Swiss race, in which BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans won the overall title, saw Team Sky seize control at the front of the peloton, allowing Swift to time his sprint to perfection to win ahead of former team mate Davide Vigano, now with Leopard Trek, with Rabobank’s Oscar Freire third.

“We were pretty disappointed that it didn’t end up in a sprint on the third stage so we definitely wanted to make sure that it was going to come down to a sprint yesterday,” explains Swift, who had finished fourth on Friday, leading the bunch home just metres behind a trio of escapees led by Astana’s Alexander Vinokourov.

While the Kazakh rider again tried to make an early move for the line yesterday, Team Sky’s train immediately countered to set up Swift for the win, with Geraint Thomas and Chris Sutton each putting in a big turn, and both could be seen celebrating with arms aloft as their team mate crossed the line. For Swift himself, it was very much a team victory.

“The guys just protected me all day and got me into position at the bottom of the climbs to give me the best chance of getting over them. I was feeling pretty good on the climbs, I went over in the front of the group,” he reflects.

“Then at the top of the last climb we were all together, we put three guys on the front to control stuff with BMC and then Liquigas came and joined us. From five kilometres out we just took control of the peloton and the guys did a fantastic job, they just lined it out, and I just had to hold what they gave me.”

With two stage wins in the Tour Down Under back in January and another in last month’s Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, Swift now has four victories under his belt already this season, and puts his form down to some solid work over the winter.

That contrasts with preparations for his debut season with Team Sky last year, overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his alleged poaching, mid-contract, from the Russian outfit Katusha, which reached a head when he was named in the British team’s Tour Down Under squad for last year’s race despite not yet having signed for them.

Swift agrees that on reflection the row between the two teams took its toll. “Yes, definitely. At the time I didn’t notice it, but looking back it was a really stressful time. But this year I was really focused, got a good block of work in, and I’m really enjoying it.”

The young Yorkshireman is clearly relishing his racing at the moment, and the themes of enjoyment and fun are ones that crop up throughout our conversation. That will no doubt be welcomed by team principal Dave Brailsford, who at Team Sky’s post-season get-together near Windsor last November admitted that those elements were perhaps missing last year due to an excessively serious approach taken by the British outfit in its first season.

“The last races that I’ve done, the Tour Down Under for instance, that was great fun as it always is, but the whole atmosphere in the team and the spirit, you notice it a bit more. It’s not a new team anymore, everyone’s getting to know each other better now, so it makes a big difference.”

All of Swift’s victories this year have come in sprint finishes, but he continues to see himself as an all-rounder with a fast finish rather than an out-and-out speed merchant, saying that he is particularly suited to “the kind of parcours that Romandie’s on, where there’s a few tough climbs, stuff like that.

“Some of the days I was going over the climbs in the first 30 as the last man in the front group,” he continues. “So I’m not a pure out and out sprinter, I’m still not going to win massive sprint finishes – if you look at yesterday, it was only really Oscar Freire [among the top sprinters] that was there. But if I can keep beating big names like him, then it’s good,” he adds.

In March, Matt Goss of HTC-Highroad, exactly one year Swift’s senior – both share a birthday of 5 November – proved himself to halve the strongest legs to win Milan-San Remo from a select group of eight riders including Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert.

Likewise, with his ability to get over climbs with the front group and still put in a blistering finish, Swift himself sees challenging for the Classics as a big target in the future. “The Tour of Flanders, Milan-San Remo, Amstel Gold – yes, that’s my perfect style of racing, I’d really like to perform well in those races,” he reveals.

The Classics aside, with three of his four wins this year coming on the final day of multi-stage races, could he ever see himself fighting out the last stage of the Tour de France with Mark Cavendish on the Champs-Elysées? It’s a thought that elicits a chuckle from Swift.

“That would be a dream come true! Hopefully it will happen one day. The Tour de France is the biggest race in the world and it would be a dream to ride it, so if I ever get the opportunity to go out there, I’d definitely enjoy it.”

As for now, his programme revolves around the Amgen Tour of California, which starts on 15 May and will be shown live on ITV4. “I can’t wait, it will be good fun, there’s a road race out in America before that which should be great, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about the race, I’m looking forward to it.”

Prior to heading out to the United States, however, Swift is looking forward to taking a rare day off before getting some more training miles in. “I’m going to take things easy now,” he confesses. “I’m in good condition at the moment, I’ve done six or seven good weeks of real hard training and racing. I’m having the whole day off tomorrow, then I’ll stick a few long rides in but nothing too intense, just maintaining my fitness, really.

Also on the horizon is the British national road race championship which will be held near Newcastle-Upon-Tyne on Sunday 26 June. Last year, Team Sky achieved an emphatic clean sweep of the podium, with Geraint Thomas taking the victory and Peter Kennaugh and Ian Stannard completing the podium.

This time round, Swift is determined to challenge for the title on a course that should suit him, although he’ll also be happy if one of his colleagues prevails on the day.

“As long as a Team Sky rider wins that’ll be great but I’ll definitely be taking the challenge to Geraint, I keep teasing him about it all the time, saying ‘That’s a nice jersey’ and stuff like that. But he’s such a talented bike rider that he’s going to be hard to beat. It’ll be a good race.”

Thomas has worn the jersey with pride this year, putting in some storming performances including second place behind Thor Hushovd in Stage 3 of last summer’s Tour de France, and a top ten placing in last month’s Tour of Flanders. Should Swift be the man to succeed him, there’s every chance he, too, will do the national colours justice over the ensuing 12 months.

You can keep up to date with the latest news on Ben Swift by following his Twitter feed.