Feature: Connor Swift (Arkea Samsic)

Heading to France today (Tuesday) is Connor Swift of Arkea Samsic for his first race of the year before he tackles the Spring Classics – we chat about the challenges he has been facing to get racing.

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Feature: Connor Swift (Arkea Samsic)

Heading to France today (Tuesday) is Connor Swift of Arkea Samsic for his first race of the year and just in, he’s arrived despite the snow and a blocked motorway – we chatted on Monday. The French are in semi lock down but allowing races to be held and the first one for Connor is the French stage race Etoile de Besseges (2.1).

Whilst travel is restricted for many, Connor is allowed to go to France because of the exemptions for athletes. “I have to have certificates from my team, British Cycling, and also the UCI and have already done two Covid tests” explained Connor from South Yorkshire.

Like a lot of things, it is easy to just talk about having to do this or that but the reality of the Brexit and Covid restrictions is there’s a lot of stress being put on athletes to know what is allowed and what isn’t when it comes to travel to get to races (never mind the weather LoL). Not sure if either British Cycling or the UCI have an expert to guide athletes but it certainly seems to be some thing that is needed.

“It has been pretty stressful constantly looking at government websites as countries update their rules and regulations every week” says Connor. “With the current circumstances for Covid changing all the time and different countries getting effected with different rates of the virus at different times, the guidelines are always changing so it’s a case of looking at travel advice for each country.”

Like so many British pros, Connor never got to go to Spain as the drive there would just not have been worth it with the Spanish changing their restrictions multiple times so he did his ‘training camp’ at home in South Yorkshire. Travel to France though is less restrictive so he has two events coming up there before travelling to Belgium.

“France have been okay with us getting there by creating some new rules and regs so now it’s just a case of making sure you have all the documents needed in case any problems occur at the borders and if you get questioned, you have the documentation you need to show that you are doing everything you can to abide by the rules and regulations and you are going into a Covid secure ‘bubble’” explained Connor .

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When it comes to knowing what he can and can’t do regarding travel, Connor has spent a lot of time on the internet doing research as well as networking with fellow professionals. “The team have helped out and I’ve had to do quite a bit to do too.”

Connor’s also called upon the help of other riders like British Road Race Champion (2019)  Ben Swift (his cousin) at Ineos. “He’s been able to let me know what they are doing and as it’s one of the best teams in the world, I’ve been able to get information on how they are doing things. I’ve also been talking to the other British pros in the UK and seeing what they are doing too”.

It’s all a far cry from last year when pro racing resumed in the summer and there wasn’t all the restrictions there are now because of the virus causing havoc in the world. “When everyone came out of severe lockdown last year, people and countries were a little more relaxed whereas now you have to have Covid tests 72 hours before you fly to any country and a Covid test 72 hours before any race.”

“So I had to do Covid tests on Saturday (to fly out Tuesday) and Sunday (for his race starting Wed) just to guarantee I had my Covid test results before the flight and the Covid results before the race.”

But not all Covid tests are the same. For example, there is an NHS Covid test ‘camp’ in a car park round the corner from me in South Yorkshire but that would not have been of any use to Connor. “You can’t use the NHS testing for travel purposes or the racing” says Connor, adding “because you need a certificate with passport details and date of birth and other things so you have to find a private testing place”.

“Last year, I had HMT hospital helping me get that process done for me and I had home test kits. Last year they were around £60 and now they are £150 and that’s the cheapest one. My team covers the expenses but there are money makers out there and the problem with the home test kits is if you have to do one on a Sunday, you can’t post it on a Sunday because the post office is closed.”

“So the best case scenario is to find a walk in clinic. In Europe, walk in clinics are super popular where as over here, they are hard to come by but I’ve just found one via the internet. Boots offer a walk in Covid test at its big main stores and luckily there’s one in Doncaster doing that. They seem to be the cheapest as well at £120”.

“I don’t need to find the cheapest but it’s only right to help out the team because some walk in clinics are £200 for the test so I am using Boots private service and they’ve been superfast. They say the results from the test will return within 48 hours but I had both results in 20 hours so that seems a really good option at the minute”.

His first race of the season, Etoile de Besseges (2.1) was actually supposed to be his second race of the year as Connor was due to do the first race of the season in Spain but was unable to travel.

“It’s pretty cool to start racing. I’m a bit nervous as it’s the start of the year and you are doing all this training but you don’t really know where you are. Normally, you have the chain gangs and things and you can see how you are going against other people in your area but I have been training by myself or with one other person, and it’s a lot different to ‘normal’”.

“In that first race, everyone is nervous as it’s the first time in a while everyone is back in the bunch, and it feels superfast. Everyone is on edge and no-one wants to crash so I’m a bit nervous but at the same time, I’m excited and just want to get back to racing and have things ‘feel’ normal”.

Going back twelve months, and one of Connor’s key roles in the team was to help Nairo Quintana which he expects will be the same again in March or April. For now though, he’s expecting to be working for sprinter Nacer Bouhanni. “I will be with Bouhanni and his sprint team to start with and then I’m looking to do all of the Classics pretty much and hope to have some free reign there and see how I go.”

“When Quintana comes back to racing, things may change again too in Tirreno-Adriatico and I’ll fit into that role too if racing it.”

Nairo Quintana is due to return to racing in the Tour des Alpes, 19-21 February.

“I am looking forward to getting the season started and know I am in good shape. I want to see if I can get some results early on. If I get that chance, I need to make the most of it and I’m super motivated and looking forward to the opening Classics weekend with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.”

“I did Omloop for the first time last year and know what to expect now and I’m really looking forward to the classics and doing a full classics season and experiencing all the others for the first time. Races like Flanders and Roubaix as our team is doing all of the classics. I’m super excited for that and to see how I fare in those super tough one day races. Etoile de Besseges (2.1) and Tour de Provence (2.Pro) will be a good kick starter to the season and should set me up nicely for what is to come”.

Domestic Versus WorldTour
For many many years, Connor was on the treadmill of the British events including our own ‘classics’ but the British season has far less variety than a WorldTour programme. Connor says of the races he’s now doing, “the whole atmosphere of a WorldTour race is different with the team meetings and the best of the best riders in the world there. They are iconic one day races and everyone is super nervous, even the top guys. Everyone is fighting for position all day whether its crosswinds or cobbled sectors or anything like that”.

“All the fans know the races too and we have recces as well of the parcour so they are massive, massive races. The nervousness you have for them can use up a lot of energy compared to say Lincoln where you are a little nervous beforehand but as soon as you start, you settle in. In the Worldtour ones, you’re even more nervous after the start, you don’t want to crash, or have a puncture and you want to make sure you get through that first half of the race saving as much energy as possible as it’s a war of attrition” You’re also praying you’re on a good day because the classics come around once a year and if you win a classic or get up there, it’s a huge result for anyone’s career. They are career changers!”

It is probably only something a rider like Connor (and other British pros) will really have a feel for, the difference between Lincoln GP say and a Spring Classic in Belgium. Racing the domestic classics which only a few people outside of a hard core of British fans will know about against races that are broadcast to millions around the world.

Connor and his former teammate Matt Holmes, and others, timed their move to the WorldTour scene at the right time too as the domestic scene starts to nose dive back to how it was over a two decades ago. Four or five years ago, the Conti teams were strong and there were decent wages to be had with some riders earning over 50k!

“The riders then may have been in their late 20s or early 30s but they were making a bit of a living from racing where as now, that has kind of disappeared. If you wind it back four or five years, getting results in the races here was pretty big and secured you a contract (domestically) for the following year. It’s now kind of turning into the younger riders racing for a bike and kit and not really getting paid. They can though take advantage of a team’s race programme when they go abroad and try and get in front of the eyes of other development teams or pro conti teams etc if they can get UCI results.”

The change in the last few years has gone from some very good wages to be had to much less money but a continental racing programme to give riders a chance of moving up in the ranks of pro teams. I asked Connor about whether getting paid a small salary of say 5K but having a good continental racing programme is a good thing? “I think it comes down to a rider’s age and what you have behind you already” says Connor. “Whether you have been to Uni etc and their current circumstances of where they live; whether that’s at home, or you are out of home and you have bills to cover if you a renting”.

“There are lot of factors but if you are 21/22, left school, got your A levels and have decided not to go to Uni, you can take the 5k, maybe part time job on the side and if you believe in yourself and know you are good enough, that is when you take it on”.

“But if you have already done that phase and are in your late 20s, you’re at the stage where you are kind of losing years of your life; beginning to settle down and getting your life sorted for instance. I think there is perhaps a cut off point like 26 where if you’re earning 5k, that’s not even the minimum age. It’s a tough decision and varies between everyone’s circumstances.”

The Training
Having lived in the same area as Connor, I’m aware of the wintery conditions he’s had to endure this winter. Having such grim days on a bike though has its advantages as Connor explained.”I am going to race in the South of France where there will probably be some rainy days and there may be some alright days of 15 degrees but I doubt there will be anything tropical. Then we are going to the Classics and the weather for them can be crap so I think my training has been alright.”

“I have been out in some pretty grim conditions and getting it done. The snow and ice have stopped me a few times but I have just jumped on the turbo and got it done. I have been out there, wrapped up and got on with it and hopefully that will pay off in the early season races”.

Has his training changed much I asked racing WorldTour events? “When I joined Arkéa Samsic in May 2019 (after winning a round of the Tour Series at Redditch in the rain LoL), and since then my training has been a little different.”

“This winter it has been a bit different as the team has wanted to take over the coaching. Kev Dawson is still over looking things on Training Peaks but the team has taken the coaching on so I have had a different coach with different efforts. I don’t think volume wise it’s changed much but I have been doing a lot more higher intensity efforts a lot sooner and currently I think I am fitter than I would be in previous years. It’s the intensity that has changed recently.”

“I did the Tour de France last year and training up to that was really good and I now have that under my belt. I just do what I am told”.

Because of lockdown and the restrictions on group riding for a long time, chaingangs have been severely impacted including the South Yorkshire one which is always packed with strong riders. So how does Connor judge his form? “We have analysed the previous year’s numbers and I already have quite a few PB numbers so far this year out of the tests I have done. I still think I am progressing each year, not massive jumps but still going up. With the numbers I have got, I am super happy and the coaches are happy and it’s all about the races now and to see what follows”.

So now with the training done, Connor can look forward to some proper racing and for his biggest fans, family and friends, that will no doubt bring some excitement into their lockdowns. “I think they’re happy and it gives them a bit of normality being stuck in lockdown and being able to watch and cheer me on” says Connor.

“Some of them are working from home so I’ll be distracting them LoL from their work. It is super nice having them there for me and having them see my progression and every year get more involved. They are now asking more and more questions to understand my racing, learning about the riders in the peloton, how races unfold and if one day I’m in a domestique role, they will understand why I finished 103rd where as in the past they may have thought I had a crap day on the bike.They are all super supportive”.

Good luck to Connor in the weeks and months ahead which may be the first full season he gets to do for his team all being well in the pandemic. Fingers crossed he can get some results and carve out a great career at the highest level.

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