Pro cyclist interview: Ben Swift on Milan-San Remo, near-misses and his Team Sky future

"At the minute, I’m happy and it feels like home, but let’s see what happens"

Picture Team Sky’s Ben Swift and Ian Stannard and the most recent edition of Milan-San Remo might spring to mind.

Stannard, you may recall, rode clear on the Cipressa with Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti, before Swift finished matters by slaloming around the carnage on the Via Roma to claim second.

Rewind seven years, however, and you’d have found the pair nursing a smoking scooter – a Vespa Special, to be precise, bought by Swift with his first pay cheque from Katusha.

“It was in a right state,” Swift recalls of his now cherished possession. “It went about 6kph. Stannard was following in my car. There was so much smoke, he had to put the wipers on.”

Ben Swift finished second behind FDJ’s Arnaud Demare at the 2016 Milan-San Remo (Pic: Sirotti)

So far, so bad, but Swift has grown attached to the machine.

“I’ll never sell it,” he continues, admitting that it is neither up nor running, and conceding that it has experienced “a few issues” along the way, chief of which might be an unexpected change of colour.

The Vespa was powder blue when Swift bought it and is now red, an unintended makeover which the Yorkshireman puts down to a misunderstanding while the machine was under his team-mates guardianship in Italy.

“I left Stannard in charge, but something got lost in translation,” he says, ruefully. The anecdote is unexpectedly revealing. The modern professional is well rewarded, but Swift places the Vespa among his most cherished possessions.

It also offers a glimpse behind the manicured facade of British Cycling’s vaunted academy programme and the professional team to which so many of its stars have graduated.

A second-hand Vespa might not possess the allure of a sleek carbon racing bike, but for Swift and Stannard, making their way into the professional ranks, both were once essential transport when learning their trade in Italy.

Swift recap

Ben Swift was the young man in a hurry, who, now 28 and in his eighth year as a professional, and seventh with Team Sky, finds himself still awaiting a career-defining win.

He has tasted success in the WorldTour, suffered injury, discovered his calling as a fast-finishing rouleur, rather than a pure sprinter, and could yet win a Monument Classic.

But he is, by his own admission, “no longer at the development stage” and is open to exploring offers from suitors outside of Team Sky, now that he is in the final year of his contract with the team he still calls home.

Swift turned pro with Katusha in 2009 but joined the newly-formed Team Sky squad a year later (Pic: Sirotti)

So near, so far

We return to the subject of Italy and Swift’s most recent collaboration with Stannard at Milan-San Remo, the first Monument of the season.

Swift has raced at La Primavera just three times but twice he has finished on the podium, having also finished third in 2014. He has an affinity with the race, though insists it’s not as challenging as its 300km distance might suggest. “I’m not saying it’s easy, but a 120km mountain stage can be harder,” Swift tells RoadCyclingUK.

To finish second at a Monument Classic, is, as Swift says, no mean feat, but close analysis of his results in 2016 suggest it was far from unexpected. He has been runner-up five times already this season, a statistic that gives him mixed emotions.

“Five second places and four in the highest level races, all pretty close to winning,” he replies, when I ask him to describe his season thus far. But he adds: “If I was sat here with five wins rather than five second places, it would be a bit different. I’d be supper happy.”

Swift’s second place finish at Milan-San Remo was the second time he’s finished on the podium of the season’s first Monument (Pic: Sirotti)

Is he suffering Sagan syndrome? If the world champion finishes second more often than he wins (five times already this season for Peter the Great, and 18 times in 2015, though the Slovak broke his Monument duck with victory in the Tour of Flanders), then perhaps winning bike races, like breaking up, is hard to do.

“It’s just different scenarios,” Swift says. “Sometimes you’ve got to have a bit of luck. Bike racing is pretty difficult. Bad luck can change it all. I’ve just got to stay confident.”

Perhaps this is what makes surefire winners like Cavendish in his pomp, and more recently Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep), such valuable commodities, but Swift is the first to acknowledge that he is not a pure sprinter; rather, he is a rider able to contest the finish from a reduced group, typically on a testing course. La Primavera itself is not hard enough for his liking. He’d prefer another climb to truly snuff out the speed merchants before the Via Roma.

There might be a further parallel with Sagan. Where once winning seemed too easy, maturity and reputation have made things harder. Swift burst onto the scene with Katusha in 2009, finishing third on the second stage of the Giro d’Italia, behind the sprinting talents of Alessandro Petacchi and Cavendish. A year later, he delivered Team Sky’s first GC success, claiming the overall at the Tour de Picardie after winning stage two. His future burned brightly.

Swift acknowledges the advantage of youthful exuberance, but, he says, winning gets harder as the quality of the opposition rises and his engagements rarely fall outside of the WorldTour these days. “No matter what time of the season, you’ve no longer got 30 or 40 guys interested in winning; you’ve got 120 guys,” Swift says of WorldTour racing.

Towing the line

While Swift admits to mixed emotions after finishing runner-up to FDJ’s Arnaud Demare in San Remo, he does not believe the Frenchman took an extended tow on the Cipressa, contrary to  the post-race allegations of Tinkoff’s hugely experienced Italian, Matteo Tosatto.

He does, however, believe that professional cycling has a serious issue with this “grey area”, which becomes black and white only in the most extreme cases, notably Vincenzo Nibali’s expulsion from last year’s Vuelta a España.

“It’s an area that the UCI need to focus on. There are always people holding on and it pisses us off. We bust our arses. Everyone takes a sticky bottle, but it’s one or two seconds; hanging on to the bottle for a long time is cheating. Everyone drafts the car when you’re coming back from a piss, but if you’re sat behind your own team car for a long time, that’s cheating.”

Swift is part of Team Sky’s British core, along with fellow Academy graduate Geraint Thomas (Pic: Sirotti)

He has strong views too on the interference of motorbikes in the peloton. It’s a slightly different take on a topic that has dominated cycling since Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Antoine Demoitié died after an incident involving a moto at Gent-Wevelgem. Most agree that more needs to be done to protect the riders. Swift wants also to protect the racing too.

“We need the motos and we need the cars for safety, but it’s getting to the point now where motos are having more impact on races than other forms of cheating. They sit too close to the front of the peloton.”

Swift recommends attaching small, on-board cameras to the motos as a means of recording their proximity to the bunch: perhaps cycling’s version of the much-debated video replay now used often in tennis and rugby, and whose possible adoption by FIFA provides an inexhaustible topic for football phone-ins.

Ben Swift (Pic: Sirotti)
Ben Swift (Pic: Sirotti)
Ben Swift (Pic: Sirotti)

Weather report

The Extreme Weather Protocol is another development on which Swift can offer an insight. He rode in the snow-blown third stage of Paris-Nice, the first time the regulation was used. Organisers called a halt to proceedings, but late in the day, and with no alternative route planned.

“I don’t know why we had to ride that far when they knew snow was settling on the road an hour or two before,” he says. “Everyone wanted to race, but we didn’t want to race over that bit of road.

He rejects the argument that the protocol would have deprived us of Andy Hampsten’s heroics on the Gavia in 1988, or of Bernard Hinault’s in the 1980 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

“People used to go down mines with no safety equipment,” he says. “Times and eras change and safety improves. Personally, I prefer bad weather because I feel it doesn’t affect me as much as other guys, but when it becomes unsafe, when snow and ice settles on the road, no one wants to crash and injure themselves.”

Sky patrol

Swift has been an integral part of Team Sky since its initiation. The aforementioned performance at the 2009 Giro earned him a visit from Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton. Swift remembers the thrill of learning that he would be reunited with the friends and coaches with whom he grew up.

Times change, and while he is not unhappy at Sky, the Yorkshireman says he is keeping his options open. Sky was founded with the specific objective of winning the Tour de France with a clean British rider, and having done so three times, is unlikely now to change its modus operandi. For a rider like Swift, not a pure sprinter able routinely to contest Grand Tour stages wins, or able to excel in the mountains, his options with the squad are limited.

“It’s a difficult one,” he admits. “It’s a decision I’m playing with over the next couple of months. It is a GC team and the focus is on GC. I’m not an out and out sprinter. With guys like Kittel and Cav, [Andre] Greipel, I’m always going to run short. I’ve done my job in the mountains, but when we know its a reduced group sprint, I’m being saved so I can perform. At the minute, I’m happy and it feels like home, but let’s see what happens.

Swift says he thrives in bad weather, winning a stage and the overall of the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali in poor conditions (Pic: Sirotti)

“I’ve got to see if they still want me,” he adds, though it’s hard to see why Sky wouldn’t want to keep Swift. He is fast, versatile, dedicated and British. This last quality is not a qualification for entry, and he makes clear that all of Sky’s home riders have contracts on merit, but equally he recognises the need for Sky to retain a British identity.

“The core of that team is British. We don’t really need to say much to each other. You just look at each other in the right way. If someone has there head at an unusual angle, you know he’s suffering. Not much needs to be said.”

He has seen a different side, arriving at Katusha’s base in Italy, aged 21, and joining the “mixed European” table for lunch, sitting with his childhood hero, Robbie McEwen. The second table was solidly Russian.

Swift’s Team Sky contract is up at the end of the season (Pic: Sirotti)

At the crossroads

Success at the highest level is now expected of British riders and Swift has been in the vanguard of a generational shift that now makes the emergence of talents like the Yates twins the rule, rather than exception.

Clearing a raised bar is more difficult, however, as Swift has discovered. Of his contemporaries, only Cavendish and Ireland’s Dan Martin have won Monuments; even the sublimely talented Wiggins and the mercurial Thomas have failed to do so. That Swift has come so close – twice – is to be applauded.

Contract renewal will force him to a crossroads this season. Remaining with Sky will keep him among a friends, but perhaps limit his opportunities. Leaving presents a gamble. Swift is likeable and talented, but remains in search of a big win. Would a different team make this more realistic? Only he will know.

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