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He’s taken two wins in the buildup to the Qatar world championships and is considered by some to be a possible dark horse for a medal. Irish sprinter Sam Bennett isn’t feeling any stress, though: a difficult season has been turned around and the pressure is off.
Sometimes the sport is not about the legs, or the lungs. Sometimes it’s all about the head, keeping morale afloat when things don’t go to plan.
For a sprinter, that is perhaps even more the case.
Irish rider Sam Bennett’s 2016 season underlines that point. Heading into the start of racing, the third year pro was full of optimism. He’d spent the winter in Monaco rather than Carrick on Suir, working hard in the sun and having what he told CyclingTips was his best off-season ever.
His power numbers were up, his bodyweight was down and his morale…well, his morale was exactly where it needed to be. He felt on the verge of something big, and was excited to see how things would go.
However, months later, he was left wondering what had gone wrong. Being over-eager prior to Milan-San Remo saw him push the body too hard and he didn’t have the form he was aiming for.
Bennett encountered frustration in other races too, although he did turn things around somewhat with a stage win in the Critérium International plus third in the Rund um den Finanzplatz Eschborn-Frankfurt.
Riding solidly in the Critérium du Dauphiné – via stage placings of third, sixth and ninth – gave him a confidence boost heading into the Tour. However disaster struck on the opening day; Bennett crashed hard, slicing his finger to the bone, and painfully limped through the race to Paris.
Ninth in the final stage was his best result of the Tour, but it was poor reward for all the work he had put in. A crash that was not his fault had ruined his campaign and dented his morale.
Afterwards, although he resolved to push on and try to turn things around, his body slumped. He was much more affected by fatigue than he had been twelve months earlier, even though he had been forced out of what was his debut Tour by illness in the final week.
“After the Tour I hit a real low,” Bennett told CyclingTips. “Afterwards I had five days off the bike. I don’t know if it was that or how hard the Tour was, but I couldn’t get going again.
“I was sleeping well over 12 hours. I was in bed until 11, 12 each day. Even one day I didn’t get out of bed until 5pm and I still had to train. I was still training but I was wrecked. Then when you are going out and you feel bad, your morale is down.”
The Artic Race of Norway had helped him bounce back from a tough Tour in 2015, with a stage win there putting him back on track. He hoped for the same a year on but the Tour fatigue persisted. His best placing was 81st and he was a non-starter on the final day.
“It was hard to get going again,” he admitted. “But I went to Hamburg then a week after and I was a lot better in the race.”
As more time passed he continued to build and, after 19th in the GP Stad Zottegem and eighth in the GP de Fourmies, he got in more good racing miles in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec and Montreal races.
Things were about to turn around.
“The body just shut down. I couldn’t understand it”
Of all the different types of riders in the peloton, sprinters arguably get it the most difficult. When the form is there and the course suits their characteristics, they risk life and limb in the chaos of bunch gallops. Getting stuck in is vital, and putting concerns about safety and risk to one side is key.
Other riders can back off when things get too hairy, but sprinters have to remain fully committed.
On other days their battle takes on a very different form. Fast-twitch fibres are ideal for the high speed bursts necessary in the big sprints, but are not conducive to strong climbing. The result is a battle to simply reach the time limit in the high mountains, leading to hours of toil on the hardest days of the race.
Because of those scenarios, sprinters need to draw on courage and morale throughout the season. Having a strong head is vital, and Bennett’s up and down year really tested his.
“I crashed in the Tour and had to go really deep to finish it,” he said, looking back. “Afterwards the body just shut down. It was a really weird feeling, I couldn’t understand it.
“I was getting blood tests done to see. I was saying, ‘I can’t be this bad. I know I am not this bad a cyclist.’ Nothing was wrong, everything seemed fine. I just didn’t understand it. Maybe I just took too much time off the bike after the Tour. Maybe I should have just kept doing a bit and then taken two or three days off.
“But I was going hard the whole time [in the race] and then stopping afterwards…maybe the body just shut down. I have no idea. I was just tired.”
Almost one month after Paris, with those aforementioned post-Tour races in his legs, Bennett headed to the Giro della Toscana. Four riders were clear at the finish of stage one, but he jumped clear of the bunch and put a second into the other sprinters to take fifth.
Twenty-four hours later he was quickest again, although with nobody out front this time he landed the win. In doing so, he beat Mark Cavendish, the rider who took four stages in this year’s Tour, and one of the biggest names in the sport.
“I have had a lot of bad luck this year,” Bennett told CyclingTips afterwards. “I started the season strong and then from Tirreno a number of things kept happening. I am finally back to normal now and I can sprint again. It is good to be able to do that.
“I was starting to lose confidence in my ability but today shows that I can do it. Then if I have a full leadout train there is potential for more.”
He said that he was putting pressure on himself to turn things around and to make sure the end of the year was better than the start.
“I have to get more results. I can’t just get a win or two this season – I have to get more.”
No holiday year
Talk to Bennett for any length of time and a couple of things become clear. Firstly, he doesn’t take himself too seriously: he is refreshingly frank about his abilities and his motivations. When things go well he shows humility rather than swagger; when things go wrong, he is the first to say he needs to get things back on track.
He also shows great hunger, putting pressure on himself all the time to do better.
Prior to his Toscana victory, he said that he knew he had to do more.
“Obviously as a sprinter you want to win. I still want some proper results and some wins before the season is out. I don’t know where I am going to get them, but I have to try and pull something out of the bag. Just for myself, just to show that I am a good sprinter.
“Last season was a great stepping stone and I built on it. I came out of the off season in really good shape. I had this idea…I suppose every rider has this idea that this season is going to be the best season yet. You always want to improve on the previous season. Even though I have improved, it just never showed. I just want something out of this season so that I can’t call it a flop.
“Also, you see other riders and you hear riders joking about a holiday year and then next year will be a contract year. But I never look at it that way, and I don’t want people ever getting that impression of me. I go into each season fighting and wanting results. I hope I didn’t give off an impression that this year was a holiday year for me: I didn’t stop fighting all year.”
Bennett’s fighting spirit served him well earlier this month when he returned from illness and eight days off the bike to win Paris-Bourges. He took the win ahead of Katusha’s Alexander Porsev, then went on to Paris-Tours.
Things didn’t work out there, due partly to disruptions in his leadout train, and he finished 15th. Still, his end of season form is solid and he has got things back on track after earlier disappointments.
Bennett’s season was due to come to an end in the elite road race at cycling’s world championships in Qatar. It occurs, incidentally, on his 26th birthday. He’ll line out in Sunday’s race as one of the dark horses. His two recent wins, his beating of Cavendish and his previous Doha win on the final stage of the 2015 Tour of Qatar all show he may be one to watch if things come down to a big gallop.
Still, speaking right after his Paris-Bourges win, he continued to downplay his own chances somewhat.
“A week ago I thought my season was over because of illness, and now I am sitting in the car coming back from a race I just won,” he said then. “It changes a lot.
“But it could be the thing that I wouldn’t have the legs, it splits from the beginning and I don’t even get ten kilometres into the race. I have no expectations for the worlds.
“I am still going to go there, I will race 110 percent and you never know what will happen.
“I definitely don’t feel any pressure because I don’t expect much. We’ll see how it goes…”