Ben Swift has set himself the challenge of joining Britain’s exclusive club of world road race champions in 2015.
The ambitious Rotherham racer established himself as one of the fastest emerging sprinters in the peloton last season and is now targeting a career-defining victory in the race for the rainbow jersey in Richmond, USA, in September.
British cyclists may have conquered the Olympic track and the Tour de France in recent times, but the coveted world title for a single-race performance remains a holy grail for the country’s riders. Only Tommy Simpson in 1965 and Mark Cavendish four years ago in Copenhagen have claimed the rainbow jersey, which illustrates how rare and revered the feat is, and also the challenge facing Swift.
The Team Sky rider, who continues his season at the four-day Dubai Tour from today, finished 12th in last year’s world championship in Ponferrada, Spain.
This year’s world championship will be contested on a more sprinter-friendly 16.5km city centre circuit in Richmond, which has just one difficult ascent that is significantly less than that negotiated by riders in Spain last September.
“There is less climbing than Ponferrada, so that is going to be a target for the end of the year,” said Swift, who is also making the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire in May a focal point of his early-season.
“Last year left me hungry for more because I had a good ride, but not a brilliant ride. There were little bits of stuff that I could have changed and done better, maybe in the build-up to it or actually in the race.
“I was happy about having it as a focus and I went well on the day, and it gave me a bit more confidence to say that I can potentially target a race like that.
“I probably won’t recce Richmond. I went out and looked at Ponferrada but I don’t think I will have time.
“I know that a few guys are going out so hopefully I will get some information. Normally a lot of the staff or a member of staff will have a look, so there will always be information passed around.”
Swift continued adding to his impressive portfolio of results with a third-place finish at the Trofeo Palma race in Mallorca on Sunday, in just his third start of the season.
Only a photo-finish separated him from runner-up and seasoned sprinter Andre Greipel, who is a six-time stage winner at the Tour de France, twice the German champion and a former world championship bronze medallist.
Swift, who was second in the British national championships in 2014, also finished third in the Milan-San Remo classic last Spring, which again provides a focal point of his early season.
In Dubai this week he will be bidding for a first win of the year when three of the stages end in a bunch finish.
Mark Cavendish is in the field, alongside John Degenkolb of Giant-Alpecin, who often has to play second fiddle to sprint king Marcel Kittel, but is lightning quick himself.
Swift’s goals for the season could well hinge on how he fares in the inter-team battle with new Sky recruit Elia Viviani, who joins from Cannondale as the British squad look to improve their ratio of sprint wins.
Viviani is in Dubai along with another fast-finisher in Sky’s Andy Fenn, and will compete with Swift for leadership roles in sprint stages throughout the year.
Given that 12 months ago he was going into the new season unsure of his capabilities after bringing an early end to his 2013 campaign to have shoulder surgery, Swift is just happy to be fit and healthy and welcomes the competition provided by the 25-year-old Italian.
“In a pure, out-and-out straight-line sprint Viviani is quicker than I am, but I think we can work really well together,” said Swift, who still trains regularly on the roads where he grew up in South Yorkshire.
“Some races we will be together, some we will be separate. I think we can work really well together,” said Swift.
“I think the emphasis on the sprinting has stepped up a lot within the team because we did slip away a little bit.
“If you look at our first couple of years, that’s where most of our results came from, that sprint group.”
Two other Yorkshire riders are in action at the six-day Tour of Qatar from Sunday, when they will pit their wits against Sir Bradley Wiggins in what is his first road race of the year before he quits Sky at the end of April.
Sheffield’s Adam Blythe makes his competitive debut for Orica GreenEdge in Qatar while Burley-in-Wharfedale’s Scott Thwaites is in the Bora Argon 18 team after making his first start of 2015 in Mallorca last week.