Any rider wanting to wrestle the British national champions jersey from the shoulders of Connor Swift will face a tough battle.
Swift, who triumphed in Northumberland last year, is in a confident mood ahead of tomorrow’s race, a 125.2-mile loop which starts and finishes in the city centre of Norwich.
The 23-year-old Yorkshireman is currently wearing his fourth version of the famous jersey, having won it last year as a Madison Genesis rider before a stagiaire stint with Dimension Data, a return to Madison Genesis and then a move to his current team, the French outfit Arkea-Samsic.
And, speaking to Allez! Allez! CC he says he is in no mood to give it up.
He said: “I’ve had it a year now and I’ve got quite attached to it.
“It’s been a pretty good year- I’ve had four editions of the jersey which is pretty special and it doesn’t happen very often so it’s a bit crazy but special at the same time.
“I don’t really want to let that go! I’d love to win it again and I do fancy my chances to be fair.
“The British nationals are quite unique in the way that it’s raced – you’re never going to see a bunch sprint of 50 guys.
“It always whittles down to 10 or 15 max. The only course you could compare this one to is Stockton when Adam Blythe won it (2016).
“There were about 12 guys in the finish and it was between Cav (Mark Cavendish) and Blythe. To have a small group like that at any finish it shows it’s been hard.
“No one is really fresh in the finale and that creates an opportunity for attacks or moves to go away.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s a case of racing the race like I did last year. I went into it and wanted to race it from the front so I wasn’t the one that was chasing.”
Looking back on his year in the national jersey, Swift says there’s a number of stand-out memories.
From the added cheers and requests for selfies at domestic races down to a pinch-yourself moment on the final stage of last year’s Tour of Britain in London.
“It was super special. Just racing around the centre of London, going past all the landmarks like Big Ben and the big screens everywhere was incredible,” he said.
“I put everything on for that day – the full national glasses, the shoes, the socks. I was fully kitted out.Embed from Getty Images
“I was racing off the front and Froomey joined me at one point and I just thought ‘it doesn’t get any better than that really!’”
The last 12 months have also seen Swift experience life at all three levels of the sport.
On the back of his win at the national championships last year, he was offered the chance to step up to World Tour level with Dimension Data, with a little help from another former British champ Roger Hammond.
Swift said: “I know Roger had been involved with Madison Genesis in the past and he forced for them to take me as a stagiere. It wasn’t guaranteed with a contract at the end but that opportunity doesn’t come round very often so I thought I needed to take it.
“My time there was really good – I really enjoyed the experience I got at that level, meeting the guys on the team and getting to race with World Tour riders.
It was a good eye-opener, especially racing with the likes of Bernie Eisel and Edvald Boasson Hagen.
“I really wanted to be signed by them and I tried my hardest. I did some good rides in Norway but the team was going through a lot at the time – Cavendish was still up in the air, the team was looking for a new sponsor, staff and rider contracts were up and it was a difficult year for riders finding a contract so it was that accumulation of a lot of things that led to me not securing a contract.
“They were happy with my performances so it wasn’t like I did anything wrong. I finished my stint on good terms.”
Hammond, who moved back to Madison Genesis at the end of last season, was on hand again when Swift was looking for a ride for 2019.Embed from Getty Images
And Swift says he can’t thank Hammond enough for the advice, confidence and motivation he gave him over the winter.
He said: “I’d only met him a few times racing for Dimension Data but the amount of time I spent with him on the phone was unreal and it just felt like I’d known him for years.
“He’s just such a good person to chat to on the phone – he really boosts your confidence and gives you motivation.
“He was telling me how he’d struggled in the past and how he’d overcame things. He’s a really good mentor – he’s been there and done that.”
With time running out, Hammond opened the Madison Genesis door for Swift to return.
He started the season well for Madison Genesis, including a podium in the opening round of the National Road Series at the East Cleveland Klondike GP, before a meeting between his agent and former Lotto Soudal rider Andre Greipel – now at Arkea – set in motion a rapid sequence of events.
Swift takes up the story: “My agent was putting together my CV for French pro-continental teams to put the feelers out early season because I’d had some French results.
“He ended up speaking with Andre Greipel and he remembered me from the Tour of Britain last year and said he’d quite like me to join the team to strengthen his lead-out.
“My agent asked when they’d want me and he kind of said ‘now’. We were taken aback a bit by that because we didn’t really think he had the influence within the team to make that sort of move.
“It was in the works for a couple of weeks but I signed a contract on Friday before Lincoln GP, planned my travel and then ended up racing the Four Days of Dunkirk on the Tuesday.Embed from Getty Images
“The day before I did my first ride for Arkea I was fiddling around with the bike, which I’ve never touched before, I had all this new kit.
“They literally made the order for the national kit on the Saturday and it turned up on Tuesday morning just prior to the race. It was a bit touch-and-go because you get fined if your rider isn’t wearing their national champion’s kit.”
It’s fair to say the last few weeks have been a baptism of fire for Swift. After a solid showing at the Four Days of Dunkirk, he retreated back home to get himself accustomed with his new bike before heading out to the Tour of Norway.
He says he’s found himself getting stronger with each ride and only a disappointing time trial at the Tour of Belgian stopped him from bettering an already-impressive 11th place on GC.
“Originally two other guys were down for GC and I think I was there to help them out. I ended up making the splits on the Flanders-like day and the Ardennes-type stage and that put me up there in GC,” he said.Embed from Getty Images
“They were then kind of working for me. There was a time trial in it and I had literally five minutes on the new bike and then straight into a 10km TT.
“I was 11th overall, about three seconds off seventh and 10 seconds off the top five so if my TT had gone better then I’d have had a solid result there.
“The team is learning what type of rider I am with each race now so it’s really good to show them that I’m a solid all-rounder and consistent.”
He may have missed out on the Arkea-Samsic team for this year’s Tour de France but Swift knows that if he continues to settle with the French team then the chance could come knocking next summer.
And it’s an opportunity he’s determined to grasp with both hands.
He said: “If the team got selected, it would be in my head from the beginning of the season.
“You’d mentally and physically prepare so that you could be selected. I’d love to take that opportunity.
“All the races we do are 1.1 or HC and we obviously get some World Tour invites so it’s definitely a good style of racing.
“Those French races, when you might have FDJ or AG2R turn up, are really good races, hard races which I enjoy.
“The only thing I can compare it to is the Tour of Britain and the Tour de Yorkshire but doing these races week in, week out I know I am racing them and then recovering and then going into them again.
“I feel like my levels are improving and it’s a nice place to be in my career.”
The men’s national championship road race gets underway at 9am tomorrow morning. Both that and the women’s race, which rolls off at 2.30pm, will be broadcast via the British Cycling YouTube channel which can be found here.
Main image courtesy of Madison Genesis.