Ben Swift’s silent and seemingly effortless progress around the circuit at the Herne Hill Velodrome is beguiling.
His pedalling is so fluid he appears to be in the control of the bike he’s riding, rather than controlling it, his legs another component of the machine beneath him, and the resulting speed a natural consequence.
He’s clad head to foot in regulation Team Sky black, wearing long sleeves, leg warmers and shoe covers despite the unusually warm and humid conditions. As he glides down the back straight, the red, white and blue of his Pina track bike lost in the glare of the sun, his sleek silhouette only adds to the impression of pure, unbridled velocity.
Swift is barely trying, of course. He’s here in his capacity as ambassador to the London Cycle Sportive, which after 50km, 100km and 100 mile routes through the North Downs and Surrey Hills, ends at Herne Hill, the last remaining purpose-built facility of the 1948 Olympic Games. He shares the track with a selection of invited guests, your correspondent among them, riding an assortment of borrowed bikes.
Watching any skilled athlete demonstrate their talent beyond the carefully regulated parameters of competition is always a privilege. To see Swift race, against riders of similar ability, and in front of a crowd, would be impressive, of course, but he would only be performing his expected role. Observing him silently circulating the tarmac of an open air velodrome on a non-descript Tuesday is a different experience. The reason he has been world scratch race champion and the reason he rides for highest-ranked road team in professional cycling is evident in every pedal stroke.
Swift’s pedalling is so fluid he appears to be in the control of the bike he’s riding, rather than controlling it, his legs another component of the machine beneath him
Swift rides among the guests, pedalling alongside those who may never have ridden a track bike before, talking freely, and offering encouragement. He rides to the requests of a film crew who have come to record his appearance, following certain of the lines painted on the track that they might capture a given shot. But it is when he rides alone, while the film crew discusses camera positions and the guests receive instructions from the coaches, that Swift is almost mesmerising.
Later, he joins a “race” among the guests to round off the day. As he passes me, employing all the effort of a man riding to buy a Sunday paper, I wonder what Dave Brailsford would make of it all. Swift is, after all, still recovering his best form after an early season crash at Challenge Mallorca. For Swift, however, the action around him must be unfolding in slow motion, placing him in as much peril as a pedestrian approached by a car travelling at 5mph. He pulls up the banking as he surges towards the riders ahead, but his action seems dictated by modesty rather than concern.
Here’s a revelation, albeit one that will startle precisely no-one who has met him: Swift is a very pleasant chap indeed. I begin badly, asking him to share his experiences from Austria, despite having spent a week writing race reports from the Tour de Suisse. “Do you mean Switzerland?” he asks gently. Errm, yes.
Things improve. Clear that we are discussing the same race, Swift confides that the Tour de Suisse had been a big target until the crash in Mallorca. Form had returned at Bayern Rundfahrt, only to be wiped out by illness. He rode himself back to something approaching his best by the end of the Swiss event and would have welcomed another week’s racing.
Swift joins a ‘race’ to round off the day at Herne Hill Velodrome and passes me with all the effort of a man riding to buy a Sunday paper
The world championship course in Florence is unlikely to suit a sprinter, Swift concedes, but he would relish the chance to ride for his country. The area is well known to him, having lived there for six years, and one of the climbs on the worlds’ parcours was a regular feature of his training rides. “I think a pure climber is going to win,” he predicts, then pauses. “….or Sagan.”
Swift will return to action at the Tour of Poland on July 27, a race in which he won the second and fifth stages last year and the points competition. It’s a race he enjoys, he says, and one he hopes will bring further success.
He mentions the Tour of Britain alongside the Eneco Tour in a programme of stage race races, but Grand Tours are off the agenda for 2013. Having come tantalisingly close to a stage win in the Vuelta last year (“I should have been a bit meaner,” he says, “and closed the door”), he sees little value in returning this year to a race with 11 summit finishes.
The track holds a lasting appeal for Swift, but unless a bunch race for endurance riders is returned to the Olympic programme, it will not occupy a prominent place in his future.
When Swift leaves Herne Hill, it is to catch a flight to Scotland and to begin preparing for the national road race championships on Sunday (23). The East Ayrshire course could suit him, he says, but he is quick to highlight the cumulative elevation gain. Six riders from Team Sky have entered the race and as long as one wins, he’ll be happy. Should it be him, many others are likely to be so too.