Nick Westby: Swift and Thomas at vanguard of British cycling’s latest revolution

Former pro-cyclist and Maserati GB brand ambassador David Millar pictured to launch Maserati Cycling and announce Maserati as the title sponsor of the Tour de Yorkshire Ride.
Former pro-cyclist and Maserati GB brand ambassador David Millar pictured to launch Maserati Cycling and announce Maserati as the title sponsor of the Tour de Yorkshire Ride.
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Lightning struck twice on Friday. One week on from the solar eclipse, another of nature’s wonders happened in the world of cycling, as two British riders raised their arms aloft in victory at races across Europe.

Geraint Thomas, for so long the selfless hero in support of the bigger names, continued proving he has the legs and the mentality to be a leading man with a gutsy solo win at the E3 Harelbeke cobbled classic in Belgium.

Le Tour de Yorkshire Routes announced at the Bridlington Spa with Ben Swift

Le Tour de Yorkshire Routes announced at the Bridlington Spa with Ben Swift

That came less than an hour after Yorkshire’s own Ben Swift executed his own personal breakaway to win a stage of the Coppi e Bartali in Italy, a well-timed attack resulting in a first victory of the season that gave him an overall lead in the race which was only snatched away on the final day.

It was a red letter day for Thomas’s and Swift’s Team Sky squad, a selection of whom also helped Richie Porte into the leaders’ jersey at the Volta Catalunya.

Two stage wins and an overall lead is some achievement for a day’s work.

Coming on the back of Tour de France victories for Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, last year’s grandest of Grand Departs in God’s own county and not one stage race on these shores in the form of the Tour of Britain, but now two with the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire just a month away, and this country really is enjoying a boom time in cycling.

Geraint Thomas

Geraint Thomas

The rise has been so dramatic and rapid that it has taken most by surprise, including a man for whom cycling when he got into it professionally was an underground, cult sport.

That man is David Millar, who two weeks ago in Yorkshire gave one of those candid, intense interviews that left this correspondent wishing he could have sat there all day assessing the speed at which the pedals have turned.

“When I started in 1997 there was nothing, it was a cycling black hole in the UK,” said Millar, whose desire for fulfillment and adventure could not be sated at home. “Back then, the only option was to go abroad to pursue a cycling career.

“Now people ask what team do you race for? They’re clued up, they’re interested. The accelerated development in the UK is incomparable to anywhere else.

“Cycling has always been in our culture. It was massive in the ’50s and ’60s, the undercurrent was always there but it just got buried under an exclusive club culture that was very elitist.

“It’s nice now that it’s come out of the woodwork and is back in the mainstream because it is part of our culture.”

Victories by the likes of Swift and Thomas can only bode well for cycling’s continued participation in the mainstream psyche.

Two wins on the same day would have been almost incomprehensible in the early part of Millar’s career, even the latter part when he was coming to the end of a lifetime in the peloton that spanned the most controversial and colourful of generations.

Quite what such pioneers as Brian Robinson and Tommy Simpson would think of it is another matter.

Those two giants of British cycling stood for so long at the top of a very small pile, but it is one that is now expanding rapidly.

Froome and Wiggins we have known about for a long time, while Mark Cavendish still has the potential to add more grand tour stage wins to his remarkable repertoire.

But Swift and Thomas are at the vanguard of the next wave, alongside other rising stars like Pete Kennaugh.

We have known about Swift in these parts for a long time, The Yorkshire Post has long been a champion of this hard-working, amenable individual.

But now at the age of 27 he is starting to prove adept in the art of sprinting.

Not yet the calibre of Cavendish – a level he may never reach – but with the Sky train behind him, Swift may yet be propelled to bigger wins than his first of the year achieved last week in Italy.

That he is targeting the world championship in Richmond in the United States in September as his principle goal for the season says everything about the confidence he has in his own ability; that he feels he belongs at the cut and thrust of a race won only twice by British cyclists, Simpson and Cavendish, 46 years apart.

Thomas has for a long time been one of British cycling’s most reliable team players.

Ed Clancy, Yorkshire’s king of the track, speaks in glowing terms of the man he won Olympic titles alongside in the team pursuit in Beijing and London.

But like Wiggins before him, Thomas is turning his attentions to the road, and with great success.

He has already completed one Tour de France on a shattered collarbone, and long before his cobbled classic win in Belgium last Friday, he was proving he could plough a lone furrow when he won the Commonwealth Games road race title on the rain-lashed streets of Glasgow last summer. The next step for him is to shoulder the burden of leading a team and riding for his own glory in a grand tour.

Kennaugh is another Olympic team pursuit champion who radiated to the road.

He was a surprise inclusion in the Sky team that helped Froome into the yellow jersey in 2013, and then won the Tour of Austria last year – not one of cycling’s greatest tests, granted, but a good stage-race to illustrate his potential.

Another Sky man making waves is Ian Stannard, whose second victory in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad late last month was one of the finest rides of the 2015 season so far.

Away from the dominant British squad, the Yates brothers Adam and Simon from across the Pennines, continue to make strides for Australian world tour team Orica GreenEdge, for whom Sheffield sprinter Adam Blythe is now competing.

All this and the fact that Cavendish has five wins to his name already this year has not even been mentioned, says it all about the wide-ranging success of cyclists from these shores.

Nor the acheivements of Otley’s Lizzie Armitstead, who flies the flag furiously for women’s cycling, her win yesterday continuing the trend.

“So many British cyclists,” concedes Millar, for whom such healthy rivalry 15 years ago was unthinkable. “There’s a plethora of talent, the depth is amazing and so much variety now.

“It’s great for British cycling.”

Great it is, too, for Yorkshire’s cycling fraternity, who get to see a selection of their local favourites not only in the Tour de Yorkshire from May 1-3, but also the town centre criteriums in Otley (July 1), Sheffield (July 22) and Beverley (July 24) this summer. Cycling fans in Yorkshire and Britain are simply spoilt for choice as they await the next lightning strike.