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Emphasising that he has no idea what to expect in his first Tour de France, Sam Bennett has said that he would be delighted if things worked out well and that he was able to land a stage win.
The Bora-Argon18 rider notched up his second win in three days on Friday when he took stage three of the Bayern Rundfahrt in Germany. Hitting the line ahead of Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Ramunas Navardauskas (Cannondale-Garmin) plus the rest of the field, the victory put Bennett back in the yellow jersey of race leader.
It also showed that he has moved up a notch since crashing hard in the finale of Scheldeprijs last month.
“I don’t really know what to expect from the Tour, but if I got a stage, that would be amazing,” Bennett told CyclingTips on Friday. “But I really don’t know what is possible. I really don’t know what to expect…if I could [win a stage], I would be f** over the moon.”
The Carrick on Suir rider secured a pro contract with the Bora Argon 18 team [then titled NetApp Endura] when he won a stage and finished second on two others in the 2013 Tour of Britain. The former junior European points race champion has a strong turn of speed but also showed an ability to climb by virtue of the fact that his victory in that race was on the tough Caerphilly stage.
His debut pro season saw him notch up three UCI-ranked victories; he won the Clásica de Almeria, then followed that up with the Rund um Koln and stage five in the Bayern Rundfarht.
This year he has already equalled that total, taking the final stage of the Tour of Qatar in February and then notching up his two stage wins this week.
CyclingTips spoke to Bennett on Thursday after he placed fourth, losing the yellow jersey he had picked up with Wednesday’s opening win. It had been his first time to lead a pro stage race and he was clearly frustrated with how things turned out.
Looking back at it one day later on Friday, he is able to recognise that there were reasons why he finished back in fourth and, consequently, lost out due to time bonuses.
“I still notice that, since the Scheldeprijs crash, I am a bit scared to fight for position,” he said. “Especially on the first stage and yesterday, when pushing for position in the last corner, the confidence isn’t fully back yet. But I think after this week it should be grand, it is coming each day.
“I was a little bit disappointed with my positioning yesterday. I was really far back in the last corner, so I did really well to move back up to fourth place by the line. Even thought I was only fourth, I was happy I was able to do that and I had the strength to go really early.
“Today the guys were on the front with five kilometres to go. I literally hadn’t any problems with positioning the whole way along. Even when we came to the one kilometre mark and there was a big open road, Shane [Archbold] just wacked it onto the last corner. That last corner was with about 450 metres to go and Shane just ramped it up and nobody came near us into the corner.”
Bennett said that there was a ramp inside the final kilometres, a slight downhill section and then a rise again to the finish. “Bouhanni came with a load of guys. He had a leadout man, Degenkolb had a leadout man and others were also pushing up. I was in the wind a bit there, then in the last 200 metres I went around the corner but it was still too early to go.
“Then Bouhanni came through there. With just about 100 metres to go I went and Degenkolb did too. He touched a wheel or something, I don’t know what happened, but I got a lot of speed in that 100 metres and came past the others.”
He was quick to thank his team-mates, saying that they had done a ‘fantastic job’ in getting him into the position he needed to be in. He admitted that he was unsure how things would go before the final sprint, but it worked out perfectly.
“I didn’t feel fantastic on the finishing circuits,” he said. “I had the power to float around all right but with the brow [the hill] before the finish line, I didn’t know if that would completely empty me before I got to the sprint. However the power was there when I went and I can’t complain.”
“This is a great confidence boost”
Bennett crashed hard in Scheldeprijs and ended up spending five weeks away from racing. He took the first week off the bike to allow his wounds to heal, then started to knuckle down again.
“I worked really, really hard,” he said. “Really hard. I was doing absolutely everything because I know I have a great opportunity here and I want to make the most of it.
“Also with the Tour coming up, I really want to be at my absolute best for it. I want to build up well.
“I can see now it is working and that is a great confidence boost. I tried to come up a level and I can see that what I am doing is right. Hopefully there is another bit left to go.”
As is the case with many sprinters, confidence is a huge factor. Bennett is a rider who lacked self-belief at times as an amateur but his mental strength has developed greatly and he is now much more aware of his ability.
That confidence plus his strong debut in 2014 prompted the Bora-Argon18 team to offer him a contract extension, and he inked a deal to race with the squad until the end of 2017. He has a dedicated team of riders around him, including new signing Archbold, while the squad knows that it has one of the best young sprinters in the sport.
It will aim to hold onto him, but may need to work to do so. Although that contract is in place, UCI regulations mean that other teams can make an offer. Bora Argon18 then has the chance to equal the offer in order to keep him on board.
Should the Tour go well, he will likely be in demand; even if he stays, the value of his contract could rise.
Bennett’s focus is not on this, but rather on performing as well as possible. In the medium term he wants his debut Tour to go well. Before then, he will chase results in the preceding races, including in the remainder of the Bayern Rundfahrt.
However he’s uncertain if he will be able to hold on to yellow in the time trial.
“I am not here to go for GC,” he said. “We have another guy, Jan Barta. He is up there and he is good at time trials. He was third in the last TT in the Tour, so hopefully he can get the yellow.
“We can go for the [final] stage and to hold on to yellow if we can get it tomorrow. It would be a fantastic end to the week.”
Talking to Bennett, it is clear that he is feeling good about his racing at present, and is also growing in confidence. He remains level headed, refreshingly down to earth, yet is also increasingly aware that he has the ability to mix it with the top names in the sport.
He’s faster than he was last year, but also lighter; that too should pay off, particularly in the more undulating races and in the Tour de France itself.
The Irishman has also retained his sense of fun. Asked about wearing yellow in the time trial, he quipped about the benefits. “It is great…I get a lie in tomorrow,” he said, referring to being the last man off and thus being able to sleep later.
“Also, I was just saying to the lads that the best thing about this is that this is a time trial where no-one can catch me…”
However even if he sees Barta rather than himself as being the Bora Argon18 rider for Saturday, he will have full focus for the final stage. He took that twelve months ago, sealing victory in the sprints classification in the process, and could do the same again this time around.
“I think the finishing circuit is the same as last year and it is one that really, really suits me,” he said. “So hopefully we can try to get another result there…”