Wiggins and teammate Ian Stannard did much of the work as Sky took control of the peloton, their intention to close the gap and get Swift into contention for any later break. The plan worked perfectly, and when Gilbert made his move, Swift was one of 10 men who leapt to his wheel.
Adam Blythe won a battle of the Brits to win the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic in central London today beating his old friend and sparring partner Ben Swift in a dramatic sprint finish on The Mall.
The two Sheffield-born cyclists were part of a five-strong group that screamed up Whitehall and under Admiralty Arch after 200 kilometres of hard racing over the wet and muddy roads of the Surrey Hills.
Team Cannondale’s Slovenian rider Kristijan Koren led them up The Mall with the finish line and Buckingham Palace in the distance. But Blythe launched his attack with 50 metres to go, surprising Swift, Team Sky’s pre-race favourite, to take a hard-earned victory for the unfancied NFTO Procycling team.
Blythe threw his arms in the air as he crossed the line, a roar of triumph breaking out from his mud-spattered face.
“It’s hard to say how much this means to me,” said Blythe afterwards. “But you could see how emotional it was as my face said it all.”
“OK, it’s not like I won the worlds or anything, but this is very big race for a British rider to win, especially in this setting in front of the Queen’s house. I hope she was watching.”
Swift was one the race favourites and appeared to be in a perfect position to show his famed finishing speed after five Sky teammates, including 2012 Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins, had worked hard in the middle part of the race to get him into a breakaway group.
“It would have been nice to have won but I am really happy with second,” said Swift. “I’ve known Adam since I was seven years old and we’ve got a lot of history, so I knew he was the one to watch.”
“I knew I needed to keep an eye on him and I could see he was looking for me on the run-in. I tried to react to his move but he’s a really fast sprinter and once he got the jump on me he was away.”
Koren’s challenge faded as the two Britons raced away and Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe took third for Omega Pharma-Quick-Step ahead of Philippe Gilbert, Belgium’s former world champion from the BMC Racing Team.
Seventy kilometres earlier it was Gilbert who had made the decisive move of the race on the approach to Box Hill.
There had been a number of early attacks from the 147-man field as the riders set off under the welcome warming sun, which had moved in to replace the morning deluge.
The first significant break came in Richmond Park after 13km when six riders got away and established a gap of just over a minute, an advantage they held through the early stretches out into Surrey’s narrow country roads, many of them still smeared with rain wash.
As Sky stepped off the gas, Cannondale were forced to do the bulk of the work at the front of the chasing group as they tried to get their sprinter Elia Viviani back in touch. But with less 50km to go the leading 11 had stretched their gap to more than a minute and it began to look as if they would never be caught.
They charged down Headley Heath and into Leatherhead, Gilbert and Swift keeping the pressure on at the front. Then Gilbert attacked again between Raynes Park and Wimbledon, splitting the group and dragging five clear of the rest.
The Belgian appeared to be on a mission to win with a long run for home and another kick briefly took him and Alaphilippe away from Swift and Blythe with Koren in tow behind.
But the trio closed the gap by the time they reached Putney High Street and it was five riders who crossed Putney Bridge for the run alongside the River Thames towards Westminster.
At this point it looked like anyone’s race, though the smart money was on Swift. Blythe had other ideas, however, and he timed his final push to perfection.
“In the last kilometre I knew I had plenty in the tank,” he said afterwards. “I just wanted to make sure I got everything out and didn’t leave it too late to make my move.”
“I knew that if I was close to Swifty I’d have a chance. I hugged close to the barriers and had a go. Now I feel like I can mix it with the big boys.”
Two of the early breakaway riders won the day’s other honours. Steve Lampier of Node4 Velosure made it a great day for British cycling by claiming the King of the Mountains title, while Dutchman Steven Lammertink, Team Giant-Shimano’s stagiaire, won the sprint contest.
It was Blythe, however, who won the most important sprint of the day.