Getting a spot on Team Sky's Tour de France squad could be considered one of the more challenging feats in cycling. Making the boat and then having any freedom to think about personal success is another matter entirely. Ben Swift rode one Tour during his seven-year spell at the British squad, in 2011, but having moved to the UAE Emirates team for 2017 in search of a leadership role, the Grande Boucle is now back on his calendar.
Sky's approach to the Tour de France over the years has been resolutely one-dimensional – one leader flanked by eight fully committed support riders. No one can argue with the effectiveness – they have four overall victories from the past five editions – but it left talented riders like Swift unable to explore their potential on the sport's biggest stage.
"To go to a race like that and be able to cherry pick a stage, and knowing you're not just going there to ride or do a job… to go to a big race like that and actually try and race, it will be a great feeling," the British rider told Cyclingnews on Tuesday at Abu Dhabi's Crowne Plaza Hotel, where Emirates was just unveiled as a new title sponsor of his new team.
Swift's biggest weapon is his fast finish, though he knows he may never be able to truly rival the pure sprinters, and he needs a selective or well-suited race to thrive. His results at Milan-San Remo – two podiums in the past three editions – are a reflection of that quality.
Over the past year or so he has focused heavily on his climbing, aiming to become lighter and more efficient, and thus multiply the number of race days that can be considered serious targets.
"For me, if you sit down and look at it, you have to ask, 'Where's my best opportunity to perform?' And it's on those really hard intermediate stages, where you've got 40-50 guys left in the peloton, or even less. So you've got to be able to climb pretty well then have a quick turn at the end," he said.
Perversely, however, that enhanced climbing ability and versatility only increased the sacrifice he had to make for others while at Sky.
"That was the thing last year, as I was getting better and better in the mountains, and doing well on those intermediate stages, I was actually becoming more valuable to the team, which meant I couldn't target them any more," he added.
"So I'm looking forward going to the Tour this year and being able to look at the road book and pick a stage I like the look of."
Swift's road book should contain a fair number of bookmarks, with ASO unveiling a mountainous but balanced parcours that seems to favour open and aggressive action throughout, rather than the race boiling down to a few pre-determined flashpoints.
The 29-year-old, however, says he hasn't yet studied the route in any great detail, with July far from the front of his mind at the moment. After starting his season at the Tour Down Under, he finds himself at the Abu Dhabi Tour, and Paris-Nice will be the final stop before Milan-San Remo in late March, the major objective of his season.
With opportunities spread out before him, what he describes as one of the best winters he's ever had under his belt, and in a team which now has long-term support from a big-money sponsor, Swift has every reason to feel optimistic.
It was a different picture towards the end of last year, however, when Chinese investment in the team he'd just signed for fell through before Abu Dhabi came in to save the day. Leaving the familiarity of Sky after all those years can't have been a call that was taken lightly, and he could be forgiven for beginning to wonder if he'd just made a big mistake.
"I wasn't that worried. I was quite focused on my training. Obviously I knew it wasn't a good situation to be in, but I had confidence they'd sort it out. I left the worrying to the backroom staff and to my agent and managers and stuff. I tried to focus on being the best I could be, and if it did go pear-shaped it was someone else's job to stress about. That's at least the idea I was trying to go with, trying to stay as level-headed as I could," he said.
"But now we're a very stable team, we've got a great set of sponsors, Emirates coming on is fantastic for us and for the sport in general. Meeting the owners and sponsors, having a chat with them, they're supper happy, and super friendly, really approachable and love the sport, and they just want us to go out there and do our best, which makes a big difference from a sponsor coming in and saying you've got be the best all the time. It's good to know they're backing us, giving us their full support, but understanding that it's a race and you can't win every race."
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