A Swift Rise for Nairo Quintana’s Bodyguard

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On Sunday, March 17th, 2019, Connor Swift won the Betty Pharoah. Not familiar with it? Well, that’s because it’s an amateur British event, raced on open roads. He drove himself there in his VW Caddy, paid the entry fee and rode away solo. The same weekend, Nairo Quintana had finished 2nd at Paris Nice. Eighteen months later, they’re in the same team at the Tour de France.

If you’ve been watching the Tour de France, you’ll have noticed the juxtaposition of Swift and Quintana. Think Timon and Pumbaa from the Lion King, the two are polar opposites when it comes to physiology. Swift’s size, as well as his pale British complexion, is a stark contrast to the Colombian’s tanned, climber’s physique. But it’s those differences that have made them such a perfect pair.

Their friendship is built on bike racing. There’s no mutual language, apart from that of cycling. One hails from Thorne, a town in southern-Yorkshire. The other from Combita, high in the Colombian mountains. Thorne lies at 5-metres above sea-level, Combita at 2825m. Two completely different worlds colliding, thanks to one beautiful sport.

You’d be forgiven if you hadn’t heard of Connor Swift before the Tour de France. While the ‘Swift’ surname is known thanks to his cousin, Ineos rider Ben Swift, Connor may have flown under your radar. At the start of 2019, he was plying his trade for Madison-Genesis, a British continental team. He took a shock win in the 2018 National Road Champs. It was a win that changed the path of his career.

A stagiaire ride with Dimension Data at the end of 2018 didn’t materialise into a pro-contract. He had the talent, but few chances to prove it. In May 2019, a rare occurrence in the cycling world took place, a mid-season transfer. Swift got the opportunity to step up to Arkea-Samsic. Originally signed to be a leadout man for Greipel in the sprints, nobody would have thought he’d be Quintana’s bodyguard in the Tour. But, 2020 is a strange year…

The Tour de France is Swift’s first Grand Tour. While he’s been around the pro-scene for a while, it’s only his fifth WorldTour race. “It’s pretty mad, but mega to be here,” he said. “Having a teammate who could well win the race, well, it’s just crazy”.

Swift’s role at the Tour is to protect Quintana. To position him if there’s crosswinds, and to help him avoid the “carnage” of sprint finishes. He laughs that his role is to protect the Colombian “so he can just do his thing when it goes uphill”.

You couldn’t meet a nicer guy. Hailing from Yorkshire in northern England, he’s family-orientated and has time for everyone. There’s no ego, just a nice bloke with a load of talent. His nickname, TooFast, is self-explanatory.

Connor Swift got some crosswind practice with Nairo Quintana at Paris-Nice this year. Photo: Cor Vos

Rather than moving to Girona or Nice like most pros, the 24-year-old Brit has set up shop in his home county of Yorkshire. It’s not an easy place to train, winters are wet, cold and windy, the summers aren’t much better either. But he’s a family man. A family man who lived with his parents until the start of this year. Why change something that works?

His preparation for the Tour de France was stereotypically British. When the Tour de Yorkshire was cancelled, he went out and did the route by himself. All three stages solo, with his only his girlfriend, acting as soigneur, driver, mechanic and fan, for support. Once competitive time-trials were allowed to return in the British Isles, Swift was straight into racing them. Britain has a legendary time-trial scene. Obviously, the Wednesday evening Cuckney 10-mile TT is the perfect preparation for the Tour de France.

On Stage seven of the Tour de France, from Millau to Lavaur, crosswinds hit and many experienced favourites, including Mikel Landa and Richie Porte, lost time. Quintana was up there with Swift, his loyal lieutenant, at his side. The video that emerged on the team’s social media after the stage was heart-warming. It’s rare to see Quintana smile at all, but as he brought the young-Brit into a hug, there was a huge grin from the Colombian and a big pat on the back. Respect.

The only words Swift could get out were “oh my God,” with his Yorkshire accent as strong as the stage’s crosswinds. There wasn’t a conversation between the two, Quintana speaks no English and very little French, Swift’s Spanish is non-existent. Connor’s words of “allez, allez, allez” in the video was met by a beaming Quintana and another embrace. There isn’t the ability to hold a conversation, but who needs a conversation when you’ve got the bond of bike racing?

“What’s next?,” is the question I put to Connor. His reply is concise, and to the point, “I want to win some races. The early spring classics and end of season one days, in the middle of that, fitting into a domestique role would be cool.”

Connor Swift’s rise to the top of the sport has been fast-tracked. But it’s far from over. The man from Yorkshire is still only 24. He could have more than a decade left in the sport. Who’d bet against him winning bike races?

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