With winter now upon us, the racing season has ended and the most demanding sportives, typically staged in high summer, are a long way off.
A rider’s thoughts will turn to training and methods to stay in shape through winter, to hit the ground rolling next spring.
The amateur’s seasonal challenge is one shared by the pros who, starved of competition, seek other methods to maintain fitness.
Team Sky’s Ben Swift, one of Britain’s fastest road sprinters and a rider with stage victories on his palmares from races in cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour, will be seizing the opportunity presented by the off-season to return to full fitness.
Swift, a former world champion on the track, saw much of his 2013 campaign disrupted by injury and returned to the saddle only last week after surgery on his shoulder.
“To be honest, despite having been injured, I’m quite pleasantly surprised with where my fitness is and how I’m feeling on the bike,” he told RoadCyclingUK.
It’s just a case of mixing it all in really, and getting a good balance between the road, the track and the gym work
“Whether things happen for a reason and my body was getting physically tired and I needed this big break, I don’t know, but it’s strange because I was expecting to be in a lot worse condition.
“Maybe that’s because I had such a long break so I was consciously trying to keep myself as active as possible, and didn’t let myself go as you would on a three-week break where you’re trying to fit as much in as possible. I’m actually really pleasantly surprised and hopefully I’m going to have some good form for the training camps.”
Swift’s surgery forced him to stay off the bike (“I was just doing a lot of walking around and trying to be a normal person which is actually quite strenuous – we’re not used to it!”), but he was able to begin his recovery with leg exercises in the gym.
The importance of conditioning, or ‘core training’ is increasingly recognised by cyclists (see the opening instalment of our new series with coach, Jo McRae), and has featured in conversation with other professional riders in this series: Tour de Korea winner, Mike Cuming, and Chronos des Nations espoir champion, Ryan Mullen.
For Swift, the route back to fitness has been a similar mix of three elements – on the bike training, stretching, and core work – but in addition, he has also worked on the track. Given his position as a member of the world’s number one road team, Swift’s track career is often overlooked, but the Yorkshireman was world scratch race champion in 2012.
“I’m getting back on the track and really using it as a training effort,” he says. “It was something I really wanted to do because I’ve always gone really well off the back of the track so it made sense to get back on the track and get stuck in there again. It’s just a case of mixing it all in really, and getting a good balance between the road, the track and the gym work.”
Swift’s road work has been conducted with what might be the most illustrious ‘chain gang’ of riding buddies in the UK. The Downing brothers, Russell and Dean, and former national circuit race champion, Graham Briggs, are among an illustrious group who head out on the roads of Yorkshire in an informal alliance known to its members as “The Donny Chaingang”.
“The ‘Donny Chaingang’ is on Saturday mornings,” says Swift. “It depends where I am. If I’m back at home with my parents then I’ll go out with the Downings and Graham Briggs etc. There’s a really strong cycling community in Yorkshire and there’s a lot of really talented bike riders as well so we’ll go out, do a couple of hours and then meet up on the ‘chaingang’ and get our heads kicked in because everybody treats it as a race!”
“It’s nice though, I love coming back and doing that because it’s something I’ve always done, but I just don’t get chance too often. There is a competitive edge to it, especially when you’re out with your mates because you like to stick on each other but everyone’s a professional at the end of the day and your just doing your job and everybody respects each other.”
As a member of team famed for its “aggregation of marginal gains”, many amateur cyclists will find the vision of Swift riding with a Saturday morning chaingang, even one as illustrious as the “Donny” crew, a heartening one. His return to the track in pursuit of full fitness is another sign of a rider returning to his roots to plot a return to the highest level. As one of the most personable members of the peloton, many will be wishing Swift a speedy recovery and the success in 2014 that his talents deserve.