Swift looks for quick start to his Tour bow in France

Yorkshire’s Ben Swift starts in the Tour de France for the first time today confident he has the ability to make a lasting impression on cycling’s greatest stage.

The Rotherham rider’s primary role over the next 21 days is to help Bradley Wiggins become the first Briton to ride up the Champs Elysees as a podium finisher.

But having won five times around the world this year, the ambitious 23-year-old believes he has every chance of causing a shock and pinching a stage or two.

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Among an all-star cast of the fastest men on two wheels, the one man Swift has his sights on is fellow Briton Mark Cavendish, a winner of 15 stages over the last three years and a serious contender for the Tour’s green jersey.

“I’ve sprinted against Mark Cavendish a few times and I never expected to be racing against him in the Tour de France so early. But I’ll be going all out against them all,” said the Team Sky rider, who is one of eight riders charged with getting Wiggins into the yellow jersey.

“I’ll be given my opportunities to go for the openings as they present themselves, and I intend to go for them.

“There’ll be a lot of opportunities on the Tour, especially in the first nine days when there’s about five good chances where a sprinter late in the day at the top of the mountains can make a run for it.”

That opening week and a half will be when Swift gets his best chance to make an impact.

Impress today on the opening 191km-stage from Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes Les Herbiers which features an uphill finish to favour the top one-day racers like Cavendish, Philippe Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd, and it might be Swift that Sky’s team director Dave Brailsford switches his focus to in the early stages.

But Swift knows the bigger picture in the sport’s most gruelling test is for a team to get their top man into the yellow jersey.

And it is three-time Olympic track champion Wiggins who is Sky and Britain’s great hope to end the duopoly of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.

“Brad has got a very realistic chance of finishing on the podium,” said Swift.

“And it would be great for me to be a part of the team that helped him do that.

“There will be times when if it’s a hard day you might only be racing against 50/60 guys with some of the main men struggling, and you get a chance to make an impression, because at the end of the day it’s effectively 21 separate races going off at the same time as the Tour.

“But the high mountains is where the Tour is won and lost.

“And it will be our job during those tough stages to make sure there’s no split from the peloton that can harm Brad.

“The route is good for Brad, the climbs are encouraging and there’s a good long time trial for him, the same as he experienced in the Dauphine (which Wiggins won).

“The team time trial will also play to our advantage because we have such a strong team and hopefully we’ll be able to propel Brad towards victory.”

Swift has progressed rapidly in 2011, after climbing steadily up the peloton in recent years.

Competing in the Tour de France has been a lifelong dream, but only after winning twice in the Tour of Australia, once in the Tour of California and twice again in Europe, did that dream become reality.

“The Tour was always something I was going to focus on after the London Olympics,” he said.

“But once you get one win it seems to snowball and when you get selected you can’t turn around and say you don’t want to do it.

“I’m proud to be contesting the Tour and I feel in great condition.

“Everything has pointed to me having a go at the Tour this year so I’ll give it everything I have,” he said.

“Every time I pin a number on my jersey in this race, I will be filled with excitement. This is the biggest, fastest and hardest cycle race in the world.”

The hard part will come in the Alps in the final week of the race.

It is there where Swift and Sky have to dig deep to help Wiggins keep on the coat-tails of the likes of Contador and Andy Schleck.

Unlike Lance Armstrong who spent weeks in the Alps preparing for his seven Tour wins, Sky riders have been racing throughout the world, picking up victories and confidence.

Indeed, Swift has very little experience of the Alpine region of France and fully expects his individual focus by that stage of the race to be spent on reaching the finish line.

“I finished the Giro d’Italia two years ago so I have experience to fall back on that I can take into the Tour,” said Swift.

“But this will be different. I’ve rode the Alpe d’Huez before but to be honest I’ve not done much racing in France.

“Winning the King of the Mountains jersey in the 2007 Tour of Britain won’t compare either because where there’s hills in Britain, in France they’re mountains and it’s a completely different style of climbing.

“So it will be tough, especially on the days when you’re climbing the likes of the Galibier and you have to finish the stage in a certain time to be able to continue the following day. The actual time limit might be difficult at that late stage of the race.

“That’s why first and foremost my aim is to finish the race. If I do, nothing will beat the feeling of riding down the Champs Elysees with my team-mates.”

Cavendish himself is focussed on getting his hands on the coveted sprinter’s green jersey.

The HTC-Highroad sprinter said: “The way to win the green jersey is to win a lot of stages. It is a tougher Tour this year – the intermediate stages and the flat stages are tougher than they have been.

“I’m lighter than last year, which is what you have to be. I lose a bit of top-end speed but I’ll get to the finish in better condition.”

One of Cavendish’s great rivals could come from within his own team, from Australian debutant Matt Goss. Cavendish said: “He’s a different sprinter to me. It adds to the strength of our team. Stages where I necessarily won’t get to the finish, Matt Goss will get to the finish.”