Ben Swift hoping to turn miserable day into Yorkshire podium glory at World Championships

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.
Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.
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The weather forecast for tomorrow’s world championship men’s road race is classic Yorkshire in late September – absolutely filthy.

Heavy rain and a moderate breeze, one that reaches umbrella-bending proportions on the exposed tops of the Yorkshire Dales, is expected to buffet the best peloton on the planet as they negotiate 280km of country lanes, B-roads and urban thoroughfarers from Leeds to Harrogate.

It is the kind of weather that has the only Yorkshireman in the race licking his lips in anticipation.

“I tend to go well when the conditions are quite bad and when it’s on a long hard day,” says Rotherham’s Ben Swift, the British road race champion and de facto leader of the home team.

“My first Milan-San Remo (an equally arduous Spring Classic) I was third and that was some of the worst conditions we’ve ever had.

“I do like those miserable sort of days. I’m hoping it’s an aggressive day.”

The tougher the better generally brings out the best in Swift.

By no means a serial winner, he has made a successful career out of contending in the longest one-day races.

He was fifth in the world championship road race in Bergen, Norway, two years ago, and has twice stood on the podium of Milan-San Remo.

The most satisfying result came this summer when he finally won the British road race title in Norfolk after years of near-misses. The victory came just a year after he was left questioning his future at a UAE team that was not utilising him well enough, and just four months after a crash on a training ride with Team Ineos in Majorca left him in intensive care.

“That was really special, not necessarily a monkey off the back it was just I’d been through a lot of stuff the last couple of years,” says the 31-year-old of his national title.

“I’d tried something new with UAE and it hadn’t really worked out, I’d had a lot of second places since my last win, so to actually get that in the British nationals, something I’ve been chasing for a long time, it was a nice moment.”

Swift says there was never any doubt he would be back from the horror crash that would have ended most careers –“I was probably doing my coach’s nut planning training and planning a race schedule” – but is acutely aware of the opportunity this weekend.

A world championship on British soil is so rare it is not even once-in-a-generation. On Yorkshire roads, that the Rotherham man knows so well, it is a unique experience, if by no means uncharted territory.

“A lot of guys will have seen this course, they’ll all know what is coming,” he says. “The big advantage we have is being used to these roads. You’ve seen all week the average speeds are down, the roads are heavy, they do zap you quite a lot and you have to be ready for that.

“Us as Brits we’ve grown up on this style, it’s the same in Ireland, the same in Norway to an extent, the heavy roads built for winter.”

Also benefitting from home knowledge on a punchy route that takes in climbs on Cray, Buttertubs and Grinton Moor before the seven laps of Harrogate, is the 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas, Adam Yates, Teo Geoghegen Hart, Owain Doull and Ian Stannard.

“It’s all about having numbers when we hit those laps,” says Swift of the British tactics.

“If you look at our team we’ve got a group that really knows how to race together and handle a distance like this.

“With this course and how I’ve gone this year you might say I’m the leader but that doesn’t mean I’m the only leader, it’s not all about me. We’ve got Adam Yates, whose a proven one-day racer, Teo has come out really well from the Vuelta. If we can have us three in contention in the last few laps when the dangerous moves are going, then we’ve got options.

“We’re by no means the out-and-out favourites, but hopefully we can just fly under the radar.

“Obviously we want to win, to get that jersey would be amazing, if I got a podium I’d be really happy. If I got a top-five to replicate Bergen I’d be happy.”

The field is top-class, as befitting a race that decides the man who wears the rainbow jersey for the next year.

If it is not Swift or a British rider, then the contenders are plentiful. Slovakia’s Peter Sagan has been quiet by his standards this year but he won this race three times from 2015.

Alejandro Valverde is 39 but as he showed in winning the world title last year, and finishing second at the recent Vuelta Espana, he is built for these events and is a man in form.

At the other end of the age scale, Mathieu van der Poel is the favourite despite his relative tender years and his inexperience in races over 250km, but he has shown a fearless winning streak this year. With Egan Bernal winning the Tour de France and Remco Evenepoel impressing in the time-trial on Wednesday, this is the year of the youngster.

Frenchman Julian Alaphillipe was the fashionable pick a few months back but how much did his assault on the Tour de France take out of him?

My pick? Greg van Avermaet. Since cycling exploded in Yorkshire in 2014 no international rider of his standing has raced in this county as often. He was second to Vincenzo Nibali on stage two of the Grand Depart weekend, has won stages and the overall on the Tour de Yorkshire and has form in the biggest one-day races, winning the Olympic road race in Rio.

Whoever is the last man standing after everything Yorkshire’s roads and the elements have thrown at him, will be a worthy world champion.