Ben Swift interview: Yorkshire's phenomenal tour de force

Sky rider Ben Swift watched the success of last summer’s Tour de France Grand Depart from the sidelines. Now his county has its own race and he tells Tim Rich how excited he is to be taking part 

Tim Rich
Thursday 30 April 2015 01:24
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Ben Swift
Ben Swift

Even a few years ago, the idea of a Tour de Yorkshire would have been a joke, lampooned with pictures of the boy from the Hovis ads pushing his bread-laden bike up the cobbled streets of Skipton.

On Friday, at Bridlington, the sneer will become a reality, with iconic names like Sir Bradley Wiggins driving their way through what Yorkshire cricket always referred to as “the champion county”.

The venues might have been chosen by the Yorkshire Tourist Board: the first stage climaxes on the seafront at Scarborough; the second in the streets around York Minster; the finish is at Roundhay Park in Leeds, where the Rolling Stones once played to a crowd of 120,000.

But it was the sheer volume of people who flocked to Yorkshire for last summer’s Grand Depart of the Tour de France that inspired this year’s event. It was numbered in millions. “It was incredible, like being in a tunnel, the crowd were so loud.” remarked the German rider, Marcel Kittel.

Ben Swift was part of that multitude. The Team Sky cyclist, who grew up in Dinnington, south of Sheffield, had been grievously disappointed not to have made the cut, but he turned up to watch.

“To have ridden the Tour de France on the roads I grew up on would have been too incredible to imagine,” he says. “But, on the other hand, I experienced the other side of it; being in the stands and watching them finish. You could feel that buzz of excitement building as you saw the helicopters above the riders.”

Swift is 27, part of the new wave of British cycling, but just old enough to remember when the sport was still thought of as a bit odd. He was three years old when he took part in his first race and his finest hour thus far was his third place in the Milan-San Remo last year. The entire 182-mile course was ridden in a single day, a day largely filled with driving, stinging rain. It was a monumental achievement.

There is no rain, just horizontal, howling wind by the Cow and Calf Rocks above Ilkley, whose moor might be described as the spiritual heart of this county. On Sunday, the tour will come pounding down this road.

There will be very little level ground on the race, which might suit Swift. “Most of my better results have come when it’s been a tough day,” he says over a bowl of red pepper soup in the Cow and Calf pub which sits opposite the rocks and which expects to sell a lot of its Broken Dial beer over the coming days. “The terrain is what I am used to. The difference is that it is such a heavy, slow road surface. In Italy, the roads are really fast.”

Ben Swift

Naturally, the surfaces he longs to ride on are in France in July. “The best way to describe the Tour de France is scary,” he says. “It is because it means so much, with all the history and passion that surround it.

“Usually, when you are in the peloton (the leading group), everyone is riding shoulder to shoulder and if you drew a circle around them you would have 60 riders in that group. In the Tour de France, there would be 80 because everyone wants to hit the front, even for a moment.

“That’s why there are more crashes, because the rewards are that much higher. Everyone wants to be at the front. It is much faster. I was 23 when I first raced it in 2011 and it took me a couple of stages to accept how it was run. I kept telling myself, ‘I race against these people every week, why am I giving them more room?’ It was the event getting to me.”

Swift’s schedule, even by the standards of the modern sportsman, is extreme. On Sunday, he finishes in Leeds. On Monday, he flies out for the Tour of California. “No bank holiday for me, but it’s the only life I know. The first thing our coach, Rod Ellingworth, asks our riders is, ‘how do you travel?’ because there is so much of it.

“How do I travel? I tend to watch a lot of box-sets, because there is no time to watch television. Buying me a Christmas or birthday present is easy – just give me an iTunes voucher and I’ll download something. You get everything you need from the team. All I need to provide are a few home comforts.”

You wonder if Swift, or any other pro cyclist, can really appreciate the beauty of the places through which they ride. “If you are in the back of the field, what I call the ‘Laughing Group’, you can look around you and take it in, but my memories of travel are airports, hotels and other cyclists.”

Swift lives in the Isle of Man, where the countryside reminds him of Yorkshire. Previously there had been six years in Tuscany, a year in Girona (“I didn’t get on there, it was a bit dull”) and a year in Nice. A life on the move.

The journey he would most like to take would be to Rio de Janeiro next year. “The Olympics are the goal. I was so disappointed to miss out on London because there will be nothing like that again in my lifetime,” he said.

“You talk to a lot of foreign cyclists and they aren’t that bothered by the Olympics, but the British riders are. It’s like the crowds we had in Yorkshire last summer – we do love an event.”

Ben Swift was speaking on behalf of Yorkshire Bank, an Official Partner of the Tour de Yorkshire

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