He’s regarded by some as one of the most talented young sprinters in the peloton and now, confidence buoyed after a hassle-free winter, Sam Bennett is vying to be a contender in this year’s Milan – San Remo.
The Bora-Argon 18 rider has set that Classic as an early goal in 2016, telling CyclingTips that he wants to step up a level as he heads into his third pro season.
“Milan-San Remo is the longest monument and it is also the real sprinters’ Classic. It is something that I really want to be competitive in,” he said, speaking from the team training camp in Mallorca.
“If we are selected there, if we get the wildcard and everything goes to plan, it is a race I would really love to be at my best for. To really go for it and to see what is possible.”
Being a contender in San Remo requires several attributes. Firstly, the ability to climb, at least as well as needed to get over hills such as the Cipressa and the Poggio. Secondly, being able to handle a long distance – at over 290 kilometres in length, La Primavera imposes demands on endurance that few other races do.
Finally, there is the requirement to sprint well. San Remo doesn’t always come down to a gallop, but it has been a regular occurrence in its history. The majority of the recent editions have boiled down to a sprint, and so a fast finish is vital.
Bennett comes from the same home town as Sean Kelly, who won San Remo in 1986 and 1992. He told CyclingTips last season that he believes that the younger Irishman has the attributes to ride well in the race.
It remains to be seen if that will happen this year or if, at 25, Bennett needs a little more time.
A solid ride in the world championships last September suggests that his endurance levels are building up, however, which is something that will be crucial in a race almost 300 kilometres in length.
The rider himself is clear that there will also be another source of improvement this time around.
“Last year, I went there, I was too heavy,” he acknowledged. “I was four or five kilos lighter in Bayern [Bayern Rundfahrt in May, where he beat San Remo winner John Degenkolb twice to win a pair of stages]. All I was saying to myself in Bayern was, if only I was that light going into Milan-San Remo, I would have been over the climb.
“Okay, I don’t know how I would have been at the other side, but I would have certainly been fighting at the end of it.”
Bennett showed his speed early on in 2015, winning the final stage of the Tour of Qatar. However he admits he didn’t get his nutrition right around that time of the season and as a result, was not where he should have been on the Italian climbs. He finished four minutes 59 seconds behind Degenkolb.
This time around, he’s paid much more attention to his diet, and in a structured way.
“I am much better. I am working with a nutritionist now,” he said. “I have learned a lot.
“I am very fussy with food, I don’t really eat my veg but now at home every night I am introducing more. I am really learning about food and what it does for you, whereas before I had the mentality that eating was cheating. It didn’t work.
“This winter I could eat…eating the right stuff makes a big difference.”
The confidence of a seamless build-up
For Bennett, the expectation of an improved showing in races like San Remo is not just about his weight. He’s also heading into 2016 with a Grand Tour in his legs, riding most of the Tour de France before being forced to stop due to illness. That, his Tour of Norway stage win three weeks later and a solid end of season have put him in a good place.
It is often said that the work done in one season carries over to the next. Because of that, he has reason to be optimistic.
He’s also psyched by his first off-season in Monaco and what he was able to do under much better weather conditions than before.
“The winter has been much, much better,” he enthused. “Just the quality of training and building on what I did this season. Because this season was a huge stepping stone, I think, and to be able to build on that is something good.
“If we look at 2014, I finished earlier…I finished in the Tour of Britain, but I also went on to a three day course of antibiotics, a one week course and then a two week course. So I had three and a half weeks of antibiotics and then started training.
“So I lost a lot, whereas in 2015 I was able to finish good, chill out and go again. So I think that was really important.”
Making the next step
The Bora-Argon 18 team is currently at its pre-season training camp and while Bennett picked up a slight illness on the flight over and hasn’t been able to do as much as the other riders thus far, he’s not too fussed.
“It is hard to tell how my form is right now, but I am pretty confident. You are always confident when the work is done. Hopefully I can start off with a bang.”
Like most sprinters, Bennett wants to try to win as soon as possible. He’ll begin racing later this month in the Mallorca events and knows that at least some of the races there should suit him.
After that he’ll return to the Tours of Qatar and Oman. His schedule after that point is currently pretty unclear, with many of the early-season wildcards still to be awarded, but Bora-Argon 18 hopes to get an invite to Tirreno-Adriatico.
If so, Bennett will likely ride that as his build-up for San Remo.
Speaking to him, his hunger is obvious.
“I would like to be ready for it this year. Really, really ready,” he said. “Just to be there fighting for it. I think in general this season I need a WorldTour win. I am 25 now and I really want to make that next step.
“If I could get that WorldTour win and start competing at that level…look, I am happy with the results I got last year but they are not big, big races. I think I need that now.”