TalkTime: Exclusive Interview with Ben Swift

VeloUK talks to Ben Swift at the place it all started for him on the bike, on the Rotherham chaingang where he couldn’t help but show off his form on the roads of five counties!

Note: if you have details on your chaingang that meets regularly, then send them to VeloUK and we’ll put them on the website:

Despite having done two Grand Tours in a three months, Ben Swift was still able to get the adrenalin flowing when the hammer went down in the Rotherham Tuesday chaingang and very soon, it was more exciting than many races I have witnessed as riders start to pop one by one as Ben Swift and Dean Downing swapped turns ten or so seconds clear of the chasers. It was all a far cry from the start of the chaingang in cool and windy conditions in South Yorkshire on a ride that touches as many as five counties before ending up in a café in Bawtry.

Two days after Paris, Ben Swift is ripping it up inSouth Yorkshire with Dean Downing.

It was near Harworth, home of another famous Tour de France rider, Tom Simpson, that Ben Swift in his Team Sky kit rolled up, turned around in the road as many do  in joining the chaingang and slipped into the group which he has been part of since he was a schoolboy.

There are hugs from riders such as Dean Downing and others before Ben takes his place in  the group and unsurprisingly after doing a lap of France, he’s near the back chatting as they all ride along at 20mph or so. A little way into the ride though, the speedo in the car is starting to hit 25 and then 30mph as the shape of the group starts to change from an orderly line of two by two into a ragged across the road small bunch of cyclists fighting to stay on the wheel in front. The hammer had gone down.

I watched as Ben stayed around half a dozen from the front and then Ben could resist no more and the colours of Team Sky darted around the outside and soon Swifty is giving it big licks at the front with a lot of black jerseys, most of them from Rapha Condor Sharp riders such as Dean Downing and Graham Briggs. As the pace goes up and up, riders start to pop one-by-one including a young rider who, probably like Ben Swift many years ago, finds the pace a little tough. As he slipped backwards, unable to slip into the slipstream of the car following the riders, I wondered if will have the determination and drive that a certain Ben Swift has shown over the years, so he too may find himself having ridden his first Tour de France in five or ten years.

Down the right goes Swifty to join in the ‘fun’ at the front of the chain gang.

After two hours on the road, a lot of that full gas, the café in Bawtry is reached and Ben is starving! I couldn’t help but notice as I watched him ride in the group that he is a lot taller and thinner than he was as a junior and in the academy but it’s not hard to understand why he’s hungry because there is very little of him! He denies it has anything to do with riding around France but at not having eaten and he’s soon tucking into some good cyclists food – Pasta! He’s certainly grown up to be a very accomplished professional but one still full of youthful energy and exuberance. While the rest of the riders enjoy the caramel slices and Americanos in the café, we chat about the chaingang and Ben admits “it’s great to be back with the lads and I have been looking forward to this for a while. They are a real good group of guys and it’s good to see so many familiar faces that I have grown up with.  I’ve been riding with them since I was an under 16.”

“I started off by going out on the Tuesday run when I could get out of school and the Saturday run too was good. Then there was the Friday run as well which a few of us would go out on. The lads on the gang are so strong because they train with the likes of the Downings all the time and when they come out, they seem to enjoy giving you a bit of a kicking!”

Recalling the moment the young lad on the chaingang had popped to Ben who was part of the reason the youngster had gone backwards, Swifty remembers it being the same for him and that after a few times on the circuit,  you get to know it well because it remains pretty much the same over the years week in, week out. Remembering the route can’t be easy though because they did twist and turn around the countryside and through little villages and down narrow lanes where there was little traffic and it was ideal riding territory. No big hills either! But there were no maps out or questions being asked, just hands going out every few hundred meters to signal they were about to turn left or right.

Things a bit more sedate on the Tuesday run before the hammer drops.

I explained to Ben that after finishing the Tour last Sunday, it would have been reasonable to expect him to take it easy today (Tuesday) but he says “That’s hard to do! I tried to do that before I left for the Tour and can’t do it. You have to get stuck in and enjoy it – it’s just a laugh. It’s quite normal for it to be around that speed (30mph) because they do it so regular, they are pretty good at it. Some of them are better than the pros at reading the conditions too because they saw the wind change, and we started rotating the other way. Everyone looks after each other until we get close to that finish line when we start to jump around a bit.”

The chaingang was where it all started for Ben who has had a lot of success on the track and the road as a youngster but this year saw him ride his first Tour de France only a month after riding the Giro. Asked how the Tour de France was for him, he replied, “It was strange being in there because it’s a race I have dreamt about and certainly the first day or so, it was surreal. I have raced against these riders near enough every race, but in the Tour I was being careful, I didn’t want to bang into anyone, or go through gaps or cause an accident as everyone was riding so close. The peloton was so nervous it was incredible.  You don’t normally see five or six crashes in a whole stage race let alone one stage.”

“In the Tour, you are riding so much more compact and everybody wants to be at the front so you’re all trying to get to the front where as in a normal race, you can weave through the middle of the peloton and get through. My gloves for example have the scars from being hit by people’s saddles and riders riding into each other. It was bonkers”

Time to refuel after a few hours riding, a lot of that at 30 mph or faster!

The Champs-Élysées
During the three weeks, Ben finished sixth on a stage to his former Academy teammate Mark Cavendish but for many, it will be the final stage where they saw Ben really taking on the Tour de France in what for most will be their abiding memory of him. Ben too was certainly excited by it all. “That was amazing” says Ben who played a starring role in the racing on there. “That was probably one of the best feelings I have had on a bike. I couldn’t even feel my legs – even after three weeks. My legs really hurt on the run in to Paris and I thought this is going to really hurt but as soon as we hit that circuit, the pain had gone; apart from that last half a lap (after Ben was caught after his long break).”

Ben Swift racing out front in Paris at the end of the Tour de France – Credit John Pierce/PhotoSport International UK USA Asia

“There was one lap when there was a lot of attacking and then I think there was about 40k to go and I attacked around the hairpin and was on my own for a k or k and half and I thought, here we go, this is going to hurt! We were there to have fun though and go out and enjoy it. I got myself to the front and attacked and that was it as a group formed. We were worked really well except for Lars Bak (HTC-Highroad) and we held them at a good time gap for a long time. We went through the bell and they still hadn’t got to us even though it was only 15 seconds or so. So I attacked the group and felt petty good and then Lars came up to me and went through and I just couldn’t stay on his wheel. That was it.”

“It was amazing though, riding around the Champs-Élysées off the front with so many loud people cheering me on. We’d go past the Norwegian people and they’d be chanting my name and Sky and then there were all the Brits at the other end of the circuit, it was awesome.”

Talking us through that final stage, he says “the first bit of the stage, you’re riding around getting your photos taken and really enjoying it because there has been so much stress for the last three and half weeks. Then, once we get onto the circuit, the race is on. BMC really wound it up when we got onto the circuit and then it was on and the attacks started. It was a proper race then! Afterwards, everyone was congratulating each other on finishing and it was a really nice experience. The whole peloton, who had been fighting each other for the last three weeks, took a step back and rode around together shouting and laughing.”

Asked for a highlight, Ben says “there are like three highlights. One being the whole race, the whole package of it and achieving a lifetime dream. I can now say I have ridden and finished the Tour de France.  The other one was Alpe d’Huez which I have ridden before as a kid but the atmosphere in the race was incredible.  Even though I was pretty wasted and had nothing left, you almost floated up there at times.  I think the fans get to interact with us a bit more because we’re not going as fast (as the leaders) so we had to stop once and go single file as we rode through Dutch corner because they were all over the road. That was good fun! And then the Champs-Élysées, that memory will stay with me for a while!”

Recalling the fatigue a rider goes through in such a race, Ben admits a lot of it is in the head. “If it was a one day race, I’d get up the next day and be tired just because I know it’s a rest day and it’s time to shut down and let the body recover. But, if there had been another week, I think I could have gone on. You just do it, keep refuelling and get on with it. You just get that numbness and pain but everyone is in the same boat. Every pedal stroke, there is a bit of a sting in there but once you’re into the stage, you don’t notice it so much.”

“The hardest moment I had was at dinner after the Galibier stage. I was hurting then and it must have been the altitude sickness or something but I had no energy and wanted to go to bed. I didn’t want to eat even but obviously with the next day being only 100k, I knew it was going to be flat out so I was a bit scared. I slept for 12 hours that night so I must have needed it!”

Kevin Dawson and Graham Briggs were but two more of the familar faces on the chaingang, riders who are part of a select group of the best in Britain.

“It is like most any other races except it goes on for a bit longer. You soon find your position in the peloton and get on with it. You know the guys you’re around on the climbs and there is much more of a mutual respect as the race goes on.  Bernie Eisel was good at controlling the gruppetto and on the Galibier stage, we would have made it (time limit) by ten minutes. In the valley, everyone was going through and off to limit our losses and we went pretty quick down the descents too but we looked after each other on the climbs because you want the grupetto to be as big  as possible when you cross the line to keep it in the race. Because the leaders that day had slipped underneath the schedule they were riding at, the time limit was cut and we missed it by two minutes but I think only forty guys finished within it that day!”

Those mountains and the stress of time limits and so on are now all behind Ben and he says he has two weeks ahead of him where he can choose when to ride his bike and how to ride it before he resumes racing again in the Eneco Tour. “Then I’ll be back on the circuit in the Eneco Tour. My programme, potentially, is Eneco, Hamburg,  maybe Plouay and then the Tour of Britain. Then the Worlds if I get selected.”

As the rest of the chaingang came out of the coffee shop to signal the end of the interview, his final word before he got back on his bike to head back towards home is that he can’t wait for his next Tour de France where I am sure we will start to see Ben doing what he is doing in other races and that is winning and getting his arms in the air, just like he does on the Rotherham chain gang …

My thanks to him for his time and Dean downing for making sure I didn’t get lost trying to follow them in the car!

Meet some of Ben Swift’s chaingang here:

The hills on the rider were nothing like the mountains that Swifty has had to haul is ass over in the last three weeks.

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