A tantalising pre-cursor to the Olympic road races next month takes place in North Yorkshire tomorrow, when the best in the land contest the National Road Race Championships.
The home county is represented by two cyclists selected in their respective road race teams for London 2012 – Ben Swift and Lizzie Armitstead, the defending women’s champion.
Armitstead won this race last year in Northumberland and has proudly sported the national jersey throughout Europe this season. While the Olympics take precedence, the opportunity to return to Yorkshire as the woman to beat in tomorrow morning’s race at Ampleforth, York, is cause for much pride.
“It’s quite a privilege to be national champion and something I’ve been very proud of,” said the 23-year-old from Otley.
“The national jersey on your back makes a difference throughout Europe.
“It gets you on the front of the grid every time you race.
“And it’s great that I get to come back and defend my title in Yorkshire.
“I know the course, having raced the Ryedale Grand Prix there before, and we’ve had the nationals in Helmsley before, so I know enough about the terrain.
“It should be nice and hard.
“It’s an all-rounder’s course, it’ll be gruelling and attritional.
“That will, hopefully, suit me.
“It’s a big race in a summer of big races.
“I’m training for the Olympics, it’s all about that, but this is still big because it’s one of my last one-off road races.”
Having already claimed the national title, Armitstead is approaching the defence of her crown in relaxed mood.
The 107km circuit for the women’s race begins at Ampleforth College at 9am and encompasses nine laps of a 9.5-mile circuit that passes through Ampleforth College grounds, Ampleforth Village, Yearsley Moor and Gilling East.
Nicole Cooke and Emma Pooley, whom Armitstead will race alongside in the Olympic road race on Sunday, July 29, are also vying for the national title.
Armitstead – who will also go for gold in the Olympic time trial on August 1 – said: “I’m approaching it in a different way this year. I’m not under any big pressure to deliver. If I come second or third I’ll be happy because the aim is to get on the podium.
“Having won the national title it does take the pressure off, and I can go into this race a little more relaxed.
“Winning two silvers beforehand made it all the sweeter when I won it last year.”
The men’s race tomorrow afternoon has been shorn of high-profile names Mark Cavendish and defending champion Bradley Wiggins, who are being rested ahead of the Tour de France and the Olympics.
That opens the door for Rotherham’s Swift, 24, to improve on his seventh-place finish last year. As one of the eight men named in the road team, Swift will be looking to finish on the podium to cement his place in the final, five-man Olympic road race squad.
“I’d be disappointed if I wasn’t close at the end,” said Swift.
“I’m feeling stronger with every ride and I think that’s to do with doing a lot of track at the start of the season and then I had my injury. The race is wide open this year. There’s some really strong teams and with us (Team Sky) having only five in the race it will be a different dynamic from previous years.”
Swift missed an early break last year and as a result, was too far back to challenge team-mate Wiggins.
“It’s important to get in that first break,” said the 2011 Tour de France rider. “I fought back to seventh last time; but I’d love to win that British jersey this time.”
Olympic track specialist Ed Clancy, of Barnsley, is also in the field for the men’s race which incorporates three laps of an 18.9-mile loop of villages and Abbeys before moving to the same 9.5-mile circuit as the women for the final six laps.
Each circuit passes through Ampleforth Abbey and the total race length is 182km.
Race organiser, Bob Howden, said: “It’s great to welcome the National Road Championships back to Yorkshire.
“Whenever the race has come to the region we have witnessed memorable racing and we expect this year to be no different, especially given the calibre of riders we have racing here.”