Our last post celebrated British Continental-level performances abroad in 2018. There was plenty to crow about from a British perspective on home roads too.
Harry Tanfield’s breakaway win on Stage 1 of the Tour de Yorkshire, robbing World Tour sprinters of their expected chance at glory, is one that will live long in the memory for any British bike racing fan. Gabriel Cullaigh’s victory in the Rutland-Melton Cicle Classic was mightily impressive. And Alex Richardson’s win at the Lincoln Grand Prix, racing as an independent rider, deserves a special mention too.
But, for us, there was a clear-cut winner, no need for a Twitter poll: Connor Swift’s national road race championships victory was a joy to behold. Not just for the way the then 22 year-old rider bested a strong line-up of Team Sky riders and other World Tour pros. But also for the ballsy 12-kilometre solo break that won him the race.
Riding for the Madison Genesis team, Swift became the first Continental-level rider to win the national road race championships since Kristian House in 2009. That was in an era before Team Sky existed, before Britons were regularly winning Grand Tours, before Britain became a major force in world cycling. Since then the winners have all been World Tour pros, all established at the highest level of the sport, including household names such as Thomas, Wiggins and Cavendish. No doubt Swift will be hoping his win will help him on his way to joining this list of British cycling royalty.
I knew Connor had excellent form, and if it came to a sprint that Matt and George would do the job for him, but up against Adam Blythe, Doull, Gabz and Rob Scott… it was going to be a big askColin Sturgess
How the race unfolded
The 2018 road race took place on the course of the Beaumont Trophy, the same course on which Bradley Wiggins won his one and only national road race championships in 2011. The route involved circuits starting and finishing in the picturesque Stamfordham, in the North East of England.
Colin Sturgess, British track legend and the team manager for Madison Genesis in 2018, explained the pre-race plan:
I had been keen for the lads to have a strong showing at the Nationals, and we’d prioritised the race accordingly. The ‘game-plan’ was pretty much our formulaic approach: don’t miss the break; get multiple riders in the break; stay alert for counter-attacks.
This plan served the team well. The opening lap was fiercely contested as riders fought to make the early break. A group of 17 riders eventually went clear, which included Owain Doull, Connor Swift’s cousin Ben Swift and Adam Blythe. Also there were no less than three riders from Madison Genesis: Connor Swift, George Pym and Matt Holmes. This was a fantastic start for the team, as Sturgess recounts:
As the race is an individual championships, it’s particularly difficult to ask riders to lay down their race for a ‘leader’ as such, but the guys rode the early stages brilliantly, a fantastic team effort, and we placed three in the break: George Pym, Matt Holmes, and Connor.
The break maintained an advantage of over two minutes from two chasers, Andy Tennant and Tom Moses, with the peloton more than three minutes behind by the third lap. With 50-kilometres to go, the gap had stretched out to over four minutes and it was clear that the new British champion would come from the lead group. The odds were looking good for the three Madison Genesis riders, but as Colin Sturgess recalls, a win was by no means yet looking more than an outside possibility:
I remember Chuck [team mechanic and assistant DS] asking me with 20 or 30 kilometres to go if I was happy with having three in the mix so late in the race, and us both agreeing that it was a fantastic scenario, probably the strongest showing in the race. We had Erick [Rowsell], Johnny [McEvoy], Rich [Handley] and the rest following any moves, and the boys in the break were riding sensibly, looking after themselves, saving energy where possible, communicating and staying attentive. I knew Connor had excellent form, and if it came to a sprint that Matt and George would do the job for him, but up against Adam Blythe, Doull, Gabz [Gabriel Cullaigh – Ed] and Rob Scott… it was going to be a big ask.
Connor was clearly not willing to wait for a sprint and made his move early, breaking free from the lead group with 12 kilometres still remaining. If the move caught the break by surprise, it also surprised his team manager:
My idea was for him to go with about 2 kilometres to go, and pre-empt any sprint, but before we could get up to communicate that to him, he’d clipped off by himself with 12 kilometres to go. Talk about backing yourself!
That last 15 minutes was probably the most nervous I’ve been in my lifeColin Sturgess
Swift built up a slender 10-second gap over five chasers, including Doull and Blythe. But with five-kilometres to go, the gap had halved and his chances looked in peril. Then, in the final three kilometres, Blythe launched a solo attack to try to bridge across. The tension was almost too much for Colin Sturgess back in the team car:
That last 15 minutes was probably the most nervous I’ve been in my life, and when Blythe started to go across I had almost settled on silver medal for Connor.
Swift dug in and, despite Blythe getting close, as he approached the final kilometre his lead went out again. Things looked good, but Sturgess wasn’t ready to count his chickens quite yet:
The gap was dropping, and at one time got under 10 seconds, but then it started to go out again, and Chuck and I were going nuts. Hitting the final kilometre I knew deep down he’d got it, but I didn’t want to jinx anything by celebrating prematurely. All I could do was will him on …
Swift wasn’t jinxed, and he drove on to take a famous win.
… Then the announcement over radio tour: Connor Swift wins! I’ve won some pretty decent bike races myself, but I couldn’t have been more proud and happier than I was that day.
I’ve won some pretty decent bike races myself, but I couldn’t have been more proud and happier than I was that day.Colin Sturgess
Six months on, we asked Swift how being British road race champion has changed him, both on and off the bike:
On the bike, I think it gives me a bit more confidence. I think if I was in a break with another national champion, you’d be slightly intimidated by them in a breakaway so obviously that’s potentially what other people will be thinking of me a little bit, so that’s quite nice to know.
Obviously you are a marked man but it’s important not to think of it that wayConnor Swift
It’s about not letting it change the way I race, but to strengthen it. Obviously you are a marked man but it’s important not to think of it that way.Maybe you can get away with other sorts of things. Maybe you can skip a few turns. Or in the bunch people give you a bit more room, especially if it’s coming to the finale and you’re there.
Another good thing in races overseas, guys speak to you, you get chatting to a lot of different people, they tell you how they watched the race and they congratulate you so that’s quite nice as well.
Away from the races, I think a lot of family and close friends who have supported me recognise the result and now follow what I do quite a lot more on social media.
Off the bike as well I’ve talked to a lot more people and been invited to lots more, I’ve been to dinners and dos, so that’s a big difference. I’ve not had a week yet where I’ve not had something in the diary.
Then at the races, it’s signing, selfies, it’s a lot more recognition and overall my profile is raised compared to before.
Finally, what about Swift’s team manager Colin Sturgess? What has seeing Connor don the national jersey meant to him?
To see Connor wearing that jersey in subsequent races for Madison Genesis (and as a stagiaire for Dimension Data) still brings a smile to my face and I am sure under Roger Hammond’s guidance in 2019 we will be seeing more victories for Connor and Madison both domestically and internationally.
- Connor Swift will ride for Madison Genesis again in 2019 and will be hoping to earn himself a World Tour contract.
- Colin Sturgess has now stepped down from his team manager role at Madison Genesis. Roger Hammond will fill his shoes in 2019, having previously managed the team when it was first created.
- The British road race championships will be held in Norfolk in 2019.
Featured photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com