It’s the penultimate lap of the 2021 British national road race and on the infamous Michaelgate climb in the shadow of Lincoln Cathedral, Ben Swift is looking under pressure for the first time all race.
And as soon as they hit the cobbled climb for the final time, inside 400m to go, Wright goes again. Can Swift react?
“It was a hell of a day out,” he reflects. “I was only thinking about it the other day on a ride and it’s probably the most satisfying win that I’ve ever had.” Battling with Wright, 22, and Tanfield, 26, was a reminder to Swift that there is very much life in the old dog yet. “Coming out of 2020 when everything went so well towards the end of the season - we had a great Giro and personally that race went so well for me - I went into the off-season really motivated. But for whatever reason I’ve had a difficult year. It didn’t quite click.
“I had a mid-season break, we had our second boy Harry, and it kind of resettled me a little bit. And across the second half of the year I felt like I was getting better and better, so to win the nationals… It wasn’t a massive a relief, but it meant so much to me to retain that jersey. It was a complete different feeling to the first time I won it but it still meant just as much - if not more.”
Swift pulls back alongside Wright. Tanfield starts to slip away, as the fans lining Michaelgate roar the trio on. Behind, Grenadier Ethan Hayter attacks from fourth on the road and is going like a train. Can he make it a historic treble - time trial, crit and British road race champion, in the space of four days? No. Swift goes again. And, with one last, lung-bursting effort, he finally snaps the elastic between him and Wright. Hayter is just too far back to close the gap. Turning the final corner, Swift punches the air. National stripes retained. Job done.
“For me, it was quite a low period in my career,” he admits. “I lost my way, lost some motivation, so I could understand why people would question how long I’d continue for when I came back. But I’ve really found my place again and found that burning desire and passion.” That, despite a huge training crash just two months into his return, that left him in intensive care in Tenerife for more than a week. Yet remarkably, Swift recovered in time to win that first national title in June.
“I feel like I’ve had a new lease of life really. I’ve had massive highlights, not in terms of personal results but in terms of the way that we’ve rode as a team and my contribution to those performances. That builds confidence and the desire to be better and better.”
He also feels as though he’s been able to adapt as a rider, highlighting the 2020 Giro as a major milestone in his evolution as a rider. In support of Tao Geoghegan Hart’s incredible maglia rosa win, the proud Yorkshireman rode to three gutsy top-fives and climbed better than he ever has before, finishing 18th overall. “I think I’ve shown over these last three years that I can be quite a versatile rider. From where I left the team in 2016 to my role now, I think I’m stronger, more well balanced. Hopefully I can keep pushing that.
“What we’re seeing across the sport now is that the whole tradition of cycling is out the window. People are winning when they’re young, they’re winning when they’re old. It used to be a very small age band where you were able to perform and then you’d ride out your last couple of years. But I feel as though I’m as good as I’ve ever been. OK, I’m not quite as fast in the sprints anymore but I’m stronger overall, I climb better, and feel I take on a leadership and mentoring role better. Next year will be my fourth year back. It goes so quickly and that says a lot.
“This team has always been home to me. I’ve spent so much of my career here and I feel like I keep growing. I keep developing, keep learning, and that’s something this team is incredibly good at. We never sit on our laurels. Now I’m really excited by this young group of riders coming through and I want to help them progress, while getting the best out of myself, doing the best for the team, and helping push these young guys on. It’s very exciting.”
It’s that leadership and mentoring role which Swift hopes to expand next year, as the team welcomes another young, talented and exciting group of riders to the team. “Oh definitely. It’s something that’s very exciting. I’ve spoken to Rod [Ellingworth] a lot about it and it’s been great to see the change, not just in British Cycling, but the way young riders are coming through across cycling. When I turned pro, there was a hierarchy - you had to almost earn your stripes, progress, go through the ranks, but now the younger generation seem to be so good already and they are winning straight away. My role will be to help nurture that, while trying to get the best results for myself and the team.
“I am towards the end of my career now so hopefully developing this role with the younger guys develops into something much further down the line as well. I’d like to be a part of this team for many years to come.”
Before that though, Ben Swift has got plenty more bike racing to do. And you’ll be able to spot him easily enough. He’ll be the guy in the British stripes.