UAE Team Emirates will line-up this Sunday at the challenging Gent-Wevelgem with 2016 Paris-Roubaix champion Filippo Ganna looking to replicate another victory in northern Europe at the ‘sprinter’s Classic’.
Italian Filippo Ganna spoke ahead of the race: “I’ll be back in northern Europe after last year’s win at Paris-Roubaix. This is a tough course and I know there will be a lot to learn but I’m ready and excited for this new challenge.”
The 249.2 km day race is renowned for its strong crosswinds during the first 130km of flat fields, followed by numerous difficult ascents and technical descents.
The course has a total of 11 steep climbs, the final is the Kemmelber – a cobbled hill that reaches an incline of 23% at its steepest point. For the first time 5.2 km of the Gent-Wevelgem course will include three semi-paved, sloping country roads or tracks called ‘Plugstreets’.
At Gent-Wevelgem the wind, rain and low temperatures can be as brutal as the cobbles themselves. Sporting Director Mario Scirea commented: “Gent-Wevelgem is a very demanding race, especially if the weather conditions are bad. The wind affects the main group almost immediately and there is a huge push to get to the front positions at the start so riders can seize the crucial moments of the race.”
Being a founding member of Team Sky, Ben Swift admits departing after seven seasons was not a decision he rushed to.
He is comfortable with his choice, however, and claims his move to UAE Team Emirates is a show of self-belief, that he can shed his tag of supporting cast member and instead be a leading light. It’s not that success has eluded Swift.
In his debut season as a professional, in 2007, he was part of the team pursuit gold medalwinning Great Britain team at the UEC European Under-23 Track Championships, and then won the King of the Mountains title at the Tour of Britain.
He won his maiden UCI WorldTour race at the 2011 Tour Down Under and a year later won the UCI Track World Championships Scratch race.
But, he’s always been content to be viewed as a team player, professing his love for riding in support of the likes of stars Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Elia Viviani. Swift turns 30 in November though and the all-rounder’s decision to sever ties in the off-season was his “now or never” move.
“It felt like the right time,” said the Rotherham native, a talented sprinter who nonetheless has shown acumen for shining in the hills too.
“For me it was about seeing if now, what I am, is the best I can be or if I can get a new start. I loved doing what I was doing at Team Sky, having to ride for certain riders, but it was taking away from my opportunities to really target those harder stages in the big stage races.
“As I was getting better in the hills I was having to do more work so my actual opportunities were becoming less, or I’d be more fatigued when it came to my opportunities because of the work I was having to do.
“It really was a tough decision to leave Sky because it was not just seven years I’d been there but I’ve got a history with all the guys. But they understood why I needed to leave. They wanted to keep me there but they understood, wished me the best and we departed on good terms. It was a now or never move. If I didn’t go now, maybe I’d never get that opportunity to really see if I can be better or if I can’t.”
Self-belief has never been an issue, but Swift’s willingness to sacrifice his own, personal glory for the greater good, at a British-centric team where he felt part of the furniture, wore thin.
He added: “You’ve got to have that selfbelief. I’ve never been one to shout or sing and dance about my own abilities, but I know what I can do in the right environment.
“I know what stages suit me so in this team I can really target those stages and try and get results. If they come, they come, if they don’t, they don’t.”
Whereas he’s unsure if he can really make it on his own, it is certain that injuries have played their part in preventing more success from coming Swift’s way.
His shoulder has proved to be the most troublesome. Swift has had three operations following an initial dislocation in 2012. His last four crashes have put him in the hospital, although altering his attitude for the sake of his health is something that he won’t sacrifice.
“The sport we do is dangerous and every time I’ve had a big crash it’s been a fast crash too,” said Swift. “The last four big crashes have put me in hospital and were all over 60km/h so you’re not hanging around when you do that. And if you fall in the wrong sort of position then you’re going to damage something.
“Hopefully now, you can’t say it’s all behind you, but I’m feeling OK. The shoulder’s feeling good, the knee’s OK, all you can do is look forward and deal with injuries when they happen. If I were to slow down and take it easy, I think that would take something away from the type of rider I am. I don’t think I’d ever stop trying to win because I’d be scared of breaking my shoulder.
“The risk is with it and you’ve got to take it. It’s something you don’t really want to think about but it is obviously there in the back of my head. Some mornings you wake up and you’re quite sore and stiff but you’ve just got to get on with it.”
Now he appears to be free and clear of injury and enjoying his fresh start, Swift will be launching a bid to win an elusive Milan-San Remo title – which takes place on Saturday.
Well that was a very hard Paris - Nice. Happy to be heading home for some recovery. Next up MSR— Ben Swift (@swiftybswift) March 12, 2017
It’s the main goal for the early part of the season but is also a race he dreams of winning before calling it a day.
“The first part of the season is definitely Milan-San Remo. I’ve shown it’s a race that really suits me in the past,” said Swift.
A race suited to him is putting it mildly. Swift has finished second (2016) and third (2014) at the longest professional one-day race in modern cycling, also known as the first major classic race of the season.
“Saying that, I can name 20 people right now who have got the same ambition and target, but I think you have to have these targets in your season,” he explained.
“Winning Milan-San Remo, that would also be the big one for me. I’ve been second and third now. To look back and say you’ve won that would be a fantastic achievement. That’s a dream, I think that’s what you have to say, you can’t call it a target.
“Throughout the year I just want to be the best I can be, put injuries behind me. I’m in a new team, new environment so it comes with a fresh start. I want to try and have the best year we can.”
Swift will be joined by Vegard Stake Laengen, Marco Marcato, Sacha Modolo, Matej Mohoric, Manuele Mori, Diego Ulissi and Federico Zurlo in Italy this weekend, in a race general manager Giuseppe Saronni won in 1983.
And apart from his individual goals, Swift is confident a top-10 WorldTour finish is more than achievable for UAE Team Emirates.
Swift added: “If Diego can have a good year, if I can have a good year myself, or better than I’ve had in the past, and if Rui (Costa) accomplishes what he did in the Tours again, I think we’ve got a lot of strength in depth and don’t see why we can’t do that.”
UAE Team Emirates’ Rui Costa is heading into this week’s Tirreno-Adriatico race in confident mood on the back of his Abu Dhabi Tour win.
Tirreno-Adriatico offers a different challenge to the 30-year-old, but it is one Costa is relishing.
”I recently won the Abu Dhabi Tour, beating the top climbers up Jabel Hafeet on stage 3. That was an important achievement, which confirmed my form is very good,” the Portuguese rider said.
“I am looking forward to the Tirreno-Adriatico and will be targeting the GC title and that famous blue jersey.”
Riding alongside Costa will be a strong, seven-man UAE Team Emirates line-up featuring Roberto Ferrari, Sacha Modolo, Vegard Stake Laengen, Marco Marcato, Filippo Ganna, Marko Kump, and Matej Mohoric.
“It will be quite a different race to the Abu Dhabi Tour, especially with the opening team time trial and the final individual time trial,” Costa said.
“In the past I consistently participated in Paris-Nice, this season I decided to try a different race and wanted to challenge myself.”