Last year’s Tour de France didn’t turn out as well as for the Arkéa-Samsic team as they were hoping, with just two top-10 finishes throughout and leader Nairo Quintana placing 17th overall due to injuries sustained in crashes.
On the upside, though, was the performance of young Briton Connor Swift, who made his Tour debut in his first season with the team, garnering excellent reviews from team management for the work he did in protecting and guiding Quintana in the bunch.
During Paris-Nice, Swift has been playing this same role again, looking after the interests of Arkéa-Samsic GC leader Warren Barguil on some days and making sure that sprinter Nacer Bouhanni is well placed at key points on others.
In fact, most days he’s had to devote time to shepherding both of his French leaders, notably during stage 5 when Bouhanni finished second to Sam Bennett in the bunch sprint in Bollène.
"With 50k to go there were a couple of sections that were potentially crosswindy and he just wanted to be really well placed there. So I rode on the front between 150k and 180k just to make sure he was in position when the bunch was getting pretty stressed," Swift told Cyclingnews before stage 6 got underway in Brignoles.
"If you’re in the middle of the bunch, trying to move up and stressing, you can expend a lot of energy due to that stress. So I kept him in position yesterday and he finished second in his sprint, so chapeau to him for a good sprint."
Like many riders in the Paris-Nice field, Swift’s own ambitions are at the Classics, and he’d been hoping for a hard race to prepare him for what will be his first shot at Milan-San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"A few people in the bunch have said it’s not been the hardest Paris-Nice so far. But obviously, we’ve still got some tough days to come. After that I’ll be doing San Remo and then heading to Belgium," he explained.
"I’ve got a good programme. It’s the first time I’ll have had a solid stint at the Classics. The primary goal is to get experience, but I also want to do well there and get some results. I feel like these races could potentially suit me, but the only ones that I’ve ever done before are Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, so I’ve got to experience them all first. I’m excited about that. They’re obviously hard races and you’ve just gotta get stuck in."
Beyond the Classics, the former British champion’s other major objective will be selection for the Tour once again. With Quintana and Barguil set to lead, and with Bouhanni potentially featuring as well in a race that offers several opportunities to sprinters, Arkéa are sure to want support riders with Swift’s all-terrain qualities.
"I did it last year and the team was happy with the role that I played there, so it’s looking good for that," he said.
"Just as long as I maintain my fitness and keep consistent throughout the season, then hopefully I’ll get selected again."
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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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