When Ben Swift announced that he would be leaving Team Sky at the end of 2016, the decision was met with a sense of collective praise from those outside the British team. Finally, the cycling world would witness what the talented all-rounder could do when he wasn't required to slog himself for a GC rider on the front of a strung-out peloton.
Almost two years later and Swift stands at another crossroads, but not the one he would have hoped for. By his own admission, this has been the 'worst 18 months' of his career but, with his health back to 100 per cent and a well-suited race programme to feast on, the 30-year-old has time to demonstrate to himself, and the wider audience, that the move from Team Sky to UAE Team Emirates wasn't an error.
"This year has changed a hell of a lot," Swift tells Cyclingnews.
"The big focus originally for me was on the Giro d'Italia, and then the Tour de France. I was going to go to the Giro to support Fabio [Aru] and then take my own opportunities, and then go the Tour and work for Dan [Martin] and take opportunities there too. But I crashed and broke my back in Flanders and that really changed everything."
In truth, Swift's 2017 season didn't fare much better. He enjoyed 75 race days but niggling injuries, illnesses and the transition to a new team during their debut season ate away at his chances of success. There were a sprinkling of top-tens but his standout result came at the World Championships, where he finished fifth in the sprint behind Peter Sagan.
The result represented what should have been the perfect launchpad into 2018 but this year he has struggled once more. His crash at the Tour of Flanders effectively ruined the remainder of his spring and would eventually see him miss the Tour de France in July.
"At the time I made some mistakes," he admits.
"I maybe rushed back a little bit too quickly, without recovering, and that just meant that I dug myself into a massive hole. I was running at 80 per cent so the right call was made not to go to the Tour, and then after nationals I just took 10 days completely off the bike. That helped me re-set."
Reset, rejuvenated, and with a huge point to prove, Swift goes into the final few months of the 2018 campaign in search of a contract. He knows that his focus must solely lie with picking up results and that winning a few races would ensure that his agent has an easier time in the market.
At present, UAE have not offered an extension. However, it must be remembered that the team from the Gulf only signed Swift late on in the 2016 season, so there is time, although the 30-year-old is right to look at his options.
"I've had pretty much the worst 18 months of my career," he said. "That puts things in a difficult situation, especially with things in cycling and teams getting a bit smaller. I'm talking to a couple of teams, looking at some options but to be honest I need to get some results so I can have a bit more negotiation power. My previous contracts have all been sorted out later in the season, around September, so I've still got a bit of time to finalise things.
"I've had a few good chats with a couple of teams at the minute but nothing has been taken to the next level. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks things will move a little further along."
An inevitable question is whether Swift would return to Team Sky. He spent seven years at the team and is a stalwart of the British national team - for whom he will line up for at the Euros next weekend, and then at the Tour of Britain in September. The management at Team Sky have always been fond of the Yorkshire rider, too, meaning that a return would not be impossible to imagine.
"I've spoken to some of the guys and obviously it's been a team that's been close to me," Swift said. "I know the management really well. I've spoken to them on a personal level. It's just about whether that develops. My agent is doing most of that stuff."
For Swift, it's not just about the right team but also the right role. He left Team Sky to shoulder more responsibility. Most of those opportunities have been stolen from him due to bad luck and injuries, but cycling holds little sympathy for such stories and trades on a currency of WorldTour points and a 'what have you done for me lately' mentality. Swift is experienced and level-headed enough to know that he may need to take a step back and find the right environment before seeking free roles.
"It's not like I'll have a million offers on the table. I need to assess what I want to do with my career. The whole reason why I left Team Sky was to pursue ambitions and to see if I could be better than I actually was. It didn't work out this time and it's not to say that I want to go completely into a domestique role but it's something where I need to get the balance right, where I can do a job for a team and then take opportunities when they arise."
While the last 18 months have been testing, Swift at least as the race programme he needs to help find his feet over the coming months, and perhaps find the next step in his career.
"I'm doing the European championships on Sunday with the national team, and then I go directly to BinckBank," he said. "That should be good for me, and I should have a lot of freedom as I'll be the only sprinter in the team. I'll just try and have the best week I can. The course suits me. Then I'll do GP Plouay before doing the Tour of Britain with the national team. I've got a race programme that I can really get stuck into."
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