Somewhat aptly for one of cycling’s fastest riders, Sam Bennett has a real connection to Formula One. A long-time fan of fast cars and of motorsport, he lives in Monaco, one of the most iconic locations of F1 racing. His apartment is two minutes’ walk from the circuit there, approximately 200 metres from the famed Casino section.
“He’s the petrolhead of all petrolheads,” his girlfriend Tara Fogarty says.
On Thursday, he channelled his inner speed freak to take his second-successive Towards Zero Race Melbourne victory on, suitably, the F1 circuit in Melbourne.
“I love Formula One,” Bennett told reporters after his victory, a smile lighting his face.
The Irishman’s triumph was a welcome morale boost after a difficult few weeks. He had ended 2017 on a high note with four stage wins in the Presidential Tour of Turkey, and worked methodically during his off-season training in order to keep the momentum going. However, he came down with a bad cold in the run-up to the Santos Tour Down Under and had a far quieter race than he had anticipated.
Bennett continued feeling under the weather this week. Following his win, he said that he had felt completely without power on Wednesday’s pre-race warmup. “I went out on the road for one hour,” he explained. “I did one effort and couldn’t continue. The DS was out with us, the mechanic was on the bike…and I couldn’t stay with them.
“Only for there was a tailwind back, I wouldn’t have got home. I would have had to call the cars. I was barely able to do 80 watts. I just felt awful.”
Bennett has had such fluctuations before; during last year’s Paris-Nice, he felt terrible on one stage, yet won another. He and his team are trying to work out what could be the cause but, on Thursday, the stars aligned perfectly.
“It is frustrating, you know?” he said, speaking about those fitness variations. “Then I come out today and I felt awesome. Fuck, I don’t know what the hell is going on – sometimes I hate it because I can’t predict it…”
Even though he was the defending champion, Bennett’s quiet Tour Down Under meant that he went into the Towards Zero Race Melbourne as a dark horse. However he felt good and, in the finale, he landed a dominant win.
“It was fantastic to be on the top step again today,” he told CyclingTips. “It’s difficult to remain confident when the legs aren’t there, as was the case during Tour Down Under. The guys rode amazingly for me and it just seems to be the race where I can come from behind and take the win in the closing metres.”
Next up is the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race on Sunday. He admits he’s not sure what to expect – last year he hoped to be in the hunt for the win, but things didn’t work out. But if he has good legs on the day, he’s excited by the thoughts of what might be.
“It would be amazing to win on Sunday, no doubt about it,” he said. “I will wait and see how the legs are and hopefully today’s form will be there again.
“I’d absolutely love to win that race. It would be great for the morale. I’d be already able to call the season a success if I did that,” he smiled.
Either way, there is a feeling that things are getting back on track. “It’s great for the morale to be back to winning ways. So, huge thanks to the team for the support, on and off the road.”
Three lessons learned in 2017
Bennett is now 27 years of age, and should be heading into the strongest period of his career. He’s beaten all of the top sprinters in the bunch at some point or another, yet is still waiting for his first Grand Tour stage win.
Finally landing one is his biggest goal for the coming season.
He went close in 2017, netting second, third, third and third on stages of the Giro d’Italia. At the time it was presumed that Fernando Gaviria’s form was what made the Colombian so dominant against the other sprinters in the bunch.
However Bennett believes he was never in 100 percent form, and that he lost out because of that.
“I was ill in the first week with a virus. I lost three kilos overnight on the first night when I got sick,” he said. “All my muscles and joints were sore, and I just lost my top-end speed.
“On stage two I was getting dropped on climbs and I was only doing 180 watts. The team had the pink jersey and were able to control the pace; otherwise, I would have been out.
“There was nothing I could do about it. But I put so much into the Giro, like training, altitude camp, that I couldn’t go home and just leave it there. I had to try. I could see that the power wasn’t there in the sprints, but I was still close.
“This season hopefully it will be better. I learned a lot and I got a lot of experience, and I will be up for it again.”
Bennett’s talk about learning extends far beyond the Giro. He picked up other lessons in 2017. The first of those was changing his approach to building form, and learning how to do altitude camps properly.
The second was in relation to his race weight. He’s lighter than many sprinters, competing below 70 kilos when he’s in form, and knows that one advantage he has is being able to get over climbs when the other fast riders are dropped.
However, rather than maintaining a set weight all season, he and the team coaches believe allowing for some fluctuation is better. “There are times and places where you need to be a certain weight,” he explained. “You can be lighter or heavier at different times. I think we have figured out what works best for what races, or what we think does anyway.
“It is not actually so different to manage the weight now, especially with altitude camps. I seem to have found that if I eat well – pretty controlled but not really dieting hard – and if I can get the quality of training, that seems to be the most important thing.”
The third lesson was listening more to his body, and backing off when he is below par. He now fully appreciates the value of resting and allowing himself to recover.
“I always want to push more and, in the past, I have always pushed through a period where I didn’t feel the best,” he said. “I think that maybe I had the wrong approach, and I needed to just back off a little. But I keep pushing even when people tell me to take it easy.
“But the body can only handle so much. The body will give you signs, I just have to listen to them.”
That’s an important message for all riders, professionals and amateurs alike. For Bennett, what really brought that home to him was when he became ill in the middle of the 2017 season. He had been going well in the Czech Cycling Tour, taking two stages and the points classification, but then contracted a virus.
He tried to push through it, but was a non-finisher in the next three races, the Bretagne Classic, the Brussels Cycling Classic and the GP de Fourmies,
He then took ten days off and, in doing so, gave his body a chance to recover. Sure enough, he returned to racing in the Sparkassen Munsterland Giro, blasting to success in the 1.HC race.
That bounce-back underlines the value of rest in the clearest possible way.
“There’s been an improvement in my tests and also in how I feel”
As the 2018 season starts to unfold, Bennett has got a couple of things going for him. He’s young and remains very, very hungry for success. He’s also a rider with blossoming confidence; something which is particularly important for sprinters.
That improving self-belief comes from his Giro rides, but also what happened in the months before and the months after. In March he landed the first WorldTour win of his career in Paris-Nice, something he feels was his best result of the year.
“It was something special to me,” he says. “There was a strong field of sprinters. I don’t think anything went wrong for them, they had a near-perfect sprint. They had an open road, but I had the power and speed to win. So that was good for the morale.”
Later on in the year, directly after his Munsterland win, he went to the Presidential Tour of Turkey and won again and again. He took four stages out of a possible six; had he not crashed on the final corner of the final stage, he likely would have taken five stage wins plus the points classification.
“My confidence is definitely on the up,” he told CyclingTips prior to 2018. “At the start of last year I was wondering if I would ever get a WorldTour victory because…I was 26, and I was like, maybe if it hasn’t happened now, it might never happen.
“But with the team stepping up, I also stepped up. The confidence has grown with the results. I have five WorldTour victories now. Okay, there might not have been the biggest field of sprinters in Turkey, but still it’s not easy to get over some of the climbs with the climbers. So, I will take every one I can. It always helps confidence.”
“Also, taking ten wins in one season was a big thing for me. I always wanted to do that, and I’m happy I hit one of my goals.”
Bennett started 2018 fully aware that the counter resets to zero. Prior to heading to Australia he was sounding confident, believing there were indications that a big year could lie ahead.
“For sure, I have taken a step up,” he said. “There’s been an improvement in my tests and also in how I feel. That’s definitely a good sign for the season ahead. During the tests with the team during the winter camp, my hopes that I had improved were proven correct. I was in a really positive head space in the lead up to the season.”
Even if his first races didn’t go to plan, winning Towards Zero Race Melbourne puts him back on track. It is, he hopes, the first of many successes in 2018.
The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race offers another chance, with Paris-Nice likely to be his next WorldTour race. Further ahead, he’ll target the Giro again, with teammate Peter Sagan getting sprint leadership for the Tour de France.
“I am happy with that,” Bennett said. “I don’t want to do the Tour for another while now. I had a bad experience the first two years. Okay, I think I am getting older, building more experience, and I know how to approach those races better. But I still have bad memories of the Tour. I need a break from it, and then I think in the next few years I can come back to it.”
Priority number one is taking his first Grand Tour stage win. Whether it’s at the Giro or at the Vuelta, crossing the line first in a three-week stage race is 2018’s biggest target.
He’s well aware that until he does that, he won’t truly be at the Formula One level of sprinting.