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by Shane Stokes
December 30, 2016
Photography by Shane Stokes and Cor Vos
Sam Bennett has been his team’s main sprinter for three seasons but that will change in 2017. The Bora-hasgrohe team has stepped up a gear with a move to WorldTour and, more significantly, the signing of key riders including world road race champion Peter Sagan.
Together with Rafal Majka and Leopold Konig, the new roster ensures the team is far stronger than before. This strength is certain to change how it approaches races. No longer an underdog, the German team will enter the sport’s top events with realistic expectations of success.
For Bennett, the signing will also change things. Speaking to CyclingTips, he spoke about fitting in alongside Sagan, and how that will affect his programme. However he sees pluses too: while his role will be different in some races, there are advantages for him in the signings which have been made.
“I feel things are different already,” Bennett told CyclingTips, speaking at the recent team media day in Valencia, Spain. “Last year you had to win in the first race. I was always thereabouts for the first month but never actually did the result. I felt a lot of pressure, especially in the build-up to the season.
“This year there is a lot less. Maybe the new signings will help, maybe take a bit of pressure off. But again the pressure came more from myself rather than the staff. So we will see how it goes.
“But there are definitely a lot more sprinters this year. In the last three years whenever I wanted to sprint I could sprint. I still have my own race programme, I have my own targets, but you have to give a little also.”
Now 26 years of age, Bennett was born in the same year as Sagan, although he is nine months younger. The Irishman turned pro much later and is still developing. In contrast, Sagan has been one of the top riders in the sport for several seasons.
Thus far he has won two world road race championships, five consecutive green jerseys in the Tour de France, seven Tour stages, four stages in the Vuelta a España, the Tour of Flanders, the Tour of California and numerous other events.
Bennett’s palmares are more modest. However, on his day, he is one of the fastest sprinters in the world. One example of this came on day two of the Giro della Toscana in September, with Mark Cavendish one of those left in his wake. He has also beaten many other big names in the past, including Sagan himself.
Still, Bennett believes he hasn’t shown his full ability as yet, and has made significant changes to his training over the winter in a bid to step up a gear.
Those changes may seem curious to some, but he believes they will pay off.
“Last year I was really working hard on my sprinting,” he explains. “For example, in the gym I went from 90 kilos to 260 kilos on the leg press. But it didn’t add any extra power on the bike. I don’t know why that didn’t show in the sprint; all I did was gain muscle and weight and I had to carry it all season.
“Now I have gone back to being myself and just letting the body [respond]…just being natural, using what I have, using my ability to the best. I think if I am lighter than other sprinters, then I can use that – come to the finish fresher rather than look for extra power in the sprint.”
Indeed there is reason to believe this might be a better route than trying to be the quickest on flat terrain. Prior to turning professional, Bennett won the fifth stage of the Tour of Britain. That stage took the riders twice up the steep Caerphilly climb in Wales. The-then An Post Chainreaction rider was the best sprinter left in the group after those ascents.
In fact, Bennett even tried to go after Nairo Quintana after the Colombian attacked on the climb, showing that he was doing more than just hanging on.
Being a sprinter who races at around 68 kilos, he knows he has the body makeup to still be there after some selective gradients.
“I’m taking a bit of a different approach to last year, but that is the way we are looking at it now,” he states. “We are doing a lot more testing and seeing how my body reacts to training, what I need to work on and what I can improve in. I think things are going to be a lot more detailed this winter.
“Okay, I don’t have so much time before racing starts, but I still think a lot can be done in the next few weeks.”
Professional cycling may be a sport which draws heavily on science, but there is still a considerable amount of trial and error. What works for one rider might not work well for another, and Bennett’s switch in direction is one he hopes will pay off well.
He took three wins in 2016 [a stage in the Critérium International, that victory in the Giro della Toscana and Paris-Bourges], adding to five in 2015 and three the year before.
If he can step things up further, a year of multiple race victories could well lie ahead.
Even if Bennett is faster in 2017, his programme will be very different to before. The biggest change will be riding the Giro d’Italia: he will head to the Italian race for the first time next season, and will square up against many other fast riders there.
Having come down heavily inside the final kilometre of the opening stage of the 2016 Tour, Sam Bennett faced the nightmare scenario of possibly being out of the race on day one. The Irish sprinter crossed the line clutching his arm to his chest and grimacing in pain, and at the team bus staff said that there were concerns that he had fractured his collarbone and also broken a finger. Bennett eventually went on to finish the Tour in last position as the celebrated ‘Lantern Rouge’
But before then, he will get things underway with other first-time participations: two big season openers in Australia.
“I start with the Tour Down Under, Cadel Evans race, Qatar, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Paris-Nice,” he said. [Note: Bennett spoke before Wednesday’s news that the Tour of Qatar will not take place in 2017 – ed.].
“The programme is building up towards the Giro, so that is going to be a good target. I have a lot of chances myself. I am happy with the programme. It is fresh. I have done the same programme in the last few years and this is new.
“I needed this….I needed the change. I kind of got stuck in a rut last year and I don’t want the same to happen. So new goals, new motivation.
“I have never been to Australia. And I’ve never raced that early. I started before in Mallorca, which is at the end of January, but this is a good bit earlier.
“One thing to consider is that I finished the 2016 season so late, so I don’t have much time to get ready. I think I am almost going back to my old self where I am panicking [before the season]. But I have to remember just to let that pressure go to the staff and to just follow the programme.”
Bennett knows that he will have to ride for Sagan on some occasions, but is also an ambitious rider himself. Getting his own chance is important, and his schedule for the first few months of next year will see him riding many different races to the Slovakian.
First, off, the duo will start out together in the Santos Tour Down Under. Bennett told CyclingTips that he will then ride the Cadel Evans Great Ocean road race. His schedule then sees him join up briefly with Sagan in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Milan-San Remo, with Bennett doing Paris-Nice in between.
After the Italian Classic he will compete in the Volta a Catalunya and Scheldeprijs, join Sagan in Frankfurt and then branch off again in riding the Giro d’Italia.
While that early programme will see him have plenty of races where he will be the lead sprinter on the team, there will also be overlap with Sagan.
How does he find him thus far?
“We have only spoken a little,” he said in mid-December. “I have only done one real training…one day with him. He is really nice, really down to early. I am sure we will get on fine.”
He accepts that the world champion is a very ambitious rider and likely won’t give way when they compete together.
“I’ve never seen Peter at a race where he hasn’t gone for it,” he states with a laugh.
So what of the biggest race in the sport? Bennett has ridden the Tour de France twice and had a frustrating experience in both participations.
He was ill in the build-up to the event in 2015 and fell ill again during the race, leaving it days before Paris. Last July he crashed on the opening stage, cut his hand to the bone and suffered a fracture. He limped through the event and ended up as the Lanterne Rouge. Ninth on the final stage showed he still had some fighting spirit left, but the result was far off what he was capable of.
Sam Bennett’s hand, ten days after his bad crash on day one of the Tour de France. He discovered on July 11 that he had a previously-undetected fracture to his small finger. This has affected his braking, sprinting and climbing in the race.
As a result he’s open-minded about whether or not he competes in the event in 2017.
“I still think the Tour is a possibility. I don’t know how my body would be able for it after the Giro, but I am still in talks. I am not pushing for it, but if it happens it happens.
“It would be very hard to do the Giro and then the Tour, but I will keep it open minded. There is nothing set in stone yet, but it could be possible.
“If it doesn’t happen, that’s okay. My last two experiences of the Tour haven’t been so pretty, so I wouldn’t mind a break from it this year. It is a special race, an amazing race, I absolutely love it, but I just need a year out, I think.”
Of course, Bennett knows that much can change during a season. He could have a great Giro; Sagan could get injured before the Tour. Still, that’s all months down the line and he prefers to just focus on what is coming up next.
“I haven’t really looked too far into the route of the Giro,” he said. “I have so many goals beforehand and the Giro is so far away. And I have so much racing…the front end is so heavy. I’m going to concentrate on that for now.”
Starting the year earlier will mean he has a lot more kilometres in his legs prior to one of the early targets for himself, Sagan and the team.
“I will have so much racing done before Milan-San Remo,” he states. “I really messed myself up for it last year, pushing too hard, but hopefully this year I will do things much, much better.”