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Hailing from Carrick on Suir, the same town as multiple green jersey winner Sean Kelly, Sam Bennett has grown up in an area of Ireland steeped in cycling tradition and lore. Time will tell how his career compares with the ex pro but, in terms of sprinting at least, Bennett has similar speed and fearlessness as his compatriot. He’s psyched for a strong 2015, knows he has made improvements and is keen to get his racing underway.
Speaking to CyclingTips recently, Marcel Kittel said that he was wary of all of his usual rivals heading into the new season, but also aware that threats to his position at the top of the sport could arrive from leftfield.
“I am curious that maybe someone new is coming,” he told CyclingTips, making clear that he was taking nothing for granted.
One of those who will be intent on trying to make life hard for Kittel, Mark Cavendish and all of the other established sprinters is the young Irishman Sam Bennett. The 24 year old had a strong first pro season, clocking up three UCI-ranked wins and quickly underlining his position as the fastest rider on his NetApp-Endura team.
His tally of victories included the 1.1 Clasica de Almeria and Rund um Köln events, stage five of the 2.HC Bayern Rundfahrt plus also a kermesse win in Lede in Belgium.
Bennett was also second in the ProRace Berlin, third on stages of the Tour of Oman, Arctic Race of Norway and Tour of Britain, and fifth in Scheldeprijs. Pretty impressive for a rider who had been racing at Continental level up until the start of 2014.
Now, with the clock ticking until his first race of the new season, he is encouraged by the early indicators of form and is raring to go.
Finally over the illness which hampered him in the second half of the season, Bennett did a three week stint training in Spain before Christmas and felt the benefits of the racing kilometres he had clocked up.
“I only trained for two weeks before Calpe because of the antibiotics I was on,” he told CyclingTips. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to train that well, but the form came along so quick. I think just having the season in the legs helped.
“I am not used to having that kind of base in the legs already coming back, so I couldn’t believe that after just two weeks I felt normal again.”
On December 2 Bennett tweeted that he had hit a new high max power output, making a considerable jump on what he had achieved during the 2014 season.
“So happy with winter training so far, 1716watts @69kg (-2kg),” he wrote. “126watts up on last yr. Target this winter 1800watts+”
While he states that he was disappointed by the subsequent sceptical reaction from some, it is clear that he is well ahead of where he was during that first pro season.
“During the season I was staring to get up to 1600 watts,” he told CyclingTips. “Then I was doing a lot of weights when I was in the gym in Calpe and it started creeping up further. I was sorry I put it up in the end as I just got a load of people questioning it, saying I am an eijit and that it [the figure] is wrong and all that.
“They were saying the power meter was not calibrated, or whatever. So from now on I am just not going to put that stuff up.”
Given that he tends to be extremely low on his bike when sprinting, that power figure, his small frontal area and his modest weight for a sprinter all suggest that he will be a force in upcoming races.
Bennett knows the best response to those who questioned the accuracy of his power meter is to show his speed at the end of big pro events; regardless of that particular motivation, though, he fully intends making his mark in the weeks and months ahead.
“I got a few wins last year, but was disappointed at the end of the season,” he admits. “I wanted a few more, but being sick messed that up.
“I want to be faster this year in my sprinting, that is the big target. I would like to get a lot more wins.
“Then again, everybody does!”
Reasons for optimism:
Aside from his increase in flat-out power, Bennett also draws encouragement from other factors. The first is the weight loss he has experienced.
“I kind of hovered around 70, 71 last season, but I always wanted to be lighter,” he explained. “I am in around the 69 kilogramme mark now, which is lighter than I was during the season. It is something I want to keep more consistent during the year.”
When Bennett won the Caerphilly stage in the 2013 Tour of Britain – a performance which helped secure his pro contract – he stuck with the GC contenders on what was one of the toughest stages of the race. He said that he was between 68.5 and 69 kilos for that event, but wasn’t quite as light during the 2014 season.
“I think I saw 69.7 once. That was before the nationals when I was going really well,” he said. “I did a race in Switzerland, like a glorified kermesse – it was up a hill and back down it. I can’t remember the name, but I was climbing pretty well in that when the weight was just under 70 kilos.”
Bennett said that one particular event brought home the importance of being lean to him.
“There was a race at the end of the season this year and I had to go back for bottles,” he explained. “I had two bottles with me heading back up. I think it is maybe the equivalent of a kilo or something. I couldn’t believe the difference going up a hill.
“I thought, ‘feck, if I am a kilo or two kilos overweight going uphill, after four or five hours it is going to make a massive difference getting to the finish.’
“I don’t want to stress about it too much, but to keep it more consistent will be a stepping stone.”
He’s also greatly encouraged by the knowledge that his first year went so well and that he not only survived, but actually thrived in some big events. Stepping up a level is always intimidating, and many neo-pros have to wait several years before notching up their debut win. It took him a couple of months.
A third factor is his ongoing partnership with the American coach Neal Henderson. He started working with him during the 2013 season and things have evolved well. Each has become more familiar with the other, with the rider learning to fully trust the coach and the coach becoming more familiar with Bennett’s ability and physiology.
The net result is a better awareness of what works and how best to reach and hold strong form.
“Up until May this year, it was still my first year working with him,” he said, referring to the twelve month anniversary of their collaboration. “I didn’t know what to expect from myself and how the winter would turn out. Everything we were doing was new as well.
“I think after seeing how everything worked this year, I am a lot more relaxed this winter. I have much more trust in his technique and training. I am a lot calmer and I am a lot more confident in my ability.
“I know what to do to be ready for races. After October we discussed how I felt after certain training sessions. We got a better idea of what kind of training suits me and brings on the form really well.
“So we are tweaking the type of training now to get better form, which will hopefully get better results. It is a constant building process.”
“I would absolutely love to get into the Tour”
Bennett’s start to this year sees him relocate to the south of France. He’ll be based there, returning to the country he lived in when part of the VC La Pomme team between 2007 and 2010.
He spent the years since in Belgium but should enjoy both better weather and more varied training terrain due to the relocation. He hopes that these two factors will help him to make further progress.
The Irishman’s racing programme is still being determined and will depend in part on the wildcard invitations the team secures. As a Pro Continental squad it needs to get invites to many of the top events and this makes it a little more difficult to lay out a clear schedule of races for its riders.
The team will however have a training camp in Mallorca later this month; after that, it seems possible that Bennett could get things moving with one or more days of racing in the Challenge Mallorca event.
He’s very much looking forward to getting year two underway. “I got through the races well last year,” he said, talking of his optimism about the season ahead.
“If I even had the same form but was carrying a kilo less, that would be great. I want to keep building on the sprinting and get the ten second power up…that should really help.”
He also believes that he should benefit from greater support as the kilometres tick down to the mayhem and melee of the bunch sprint.
“The team are building a strong leadout train for me, too; all the small things add up, and that will be important too.”
It’s thought likely that Tour de France organiser ASO will announce its wildcard selections in the coming weeks. Given the early decision, it is not clear if the team will be able to race beforehand; Bennett would prefer if there was time to do this, knowing that strong performances early on would thrust the team into ASO’s consciousness and make a positive decision more likely.
The team has been pushing hard for inclusion, though, reassuring ASO that it can and will perform despite the departure of Leopold Konig to Sky. The Czech rider was seventh in last year’s Tour de France.
This time around, the bunch sprints will be more important for the Bora-Argon 18 team and Bennett appears likely to be part of the lineup if it is indeed given the nod.
Months on from being passed over for selection due to his lack of experience and the team’s desire to shelter him, he is clear that he is ready to take part. Riding the race and performing well is one of his biggest objectives for 2015.
“The Tour is something that the team would really like to be in. They are making a really big effort to be selected,” he said, fixing his thoughts on the July event. “Obviously I didn’t get an opportunity last year but hopefully this time I will. I really hope to be ready for it.”
He doesn’t show any fear about riding one of the toughest events in sport, just hunger. That and ambition.
“I would absolutely love to get into the Tour and to be our sprinter for it. That’s a big goal for me.”