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TANUNDA, Australia (CT) – You can understand why Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was nervous before today’s stage. It was his first UCI race of the year, his first significant outing with his new team, and to top it all off, he’d copped a drubbing from fellow sprinter Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) at the Schwalbe Classic a few nights earlier.
But on today’s opening stage of the Tour Down Under, Bennett overcame those nerves and got his season off to the perfect start, winning the bunch sprint into Tanunda.
Bennett’s teammates rode a stellar lead-out in the final 10 kilometres, allowing the Irish champion to sprint to victory on the opening day of the season’s first WorldTour race. Behind Bennett, Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates) took a close second after being the first to launch his sprint, while Bora-Hansgrohe’s Erik Baska impressed with a surprise third place.
— Santos Tour Down Under 🚴🚴♀️ (@tourdownunder) January 21, 2020
The relief was clear in Bennett’s voice as he talked through his first win for Deceuninck-QuickStep.
“I did feel the pressure today, and it’s really, really nice to get it early,” he said. “I thought the only mistake made today was by myself. I left it too late because [the other sprinters] got the jump on me and I found it hard to get the wheel back in front.
“Everybody did a fantastic job today and the lead-out was perfect. They took it up really, really early, controlled the front and just did the perfect job. I can’t thank them enough.”
While many sprinters exude an air of permanent confidence, you don’t get that vibe from Bennett. He’s softly spoken, humble, and is known to doubt himself on occasion. Recent seasons should give him plenty of self-belief — three stage wins at the Giro, two at the Vuelta, plus many more WorldTour wins besides — but a new season means hitting the reset button, especially when you’re racing with a new squad.
“I think the team has more confidence in me than I do in myself,” Bennett said. “Today the way they rode for me — it was absolutely amazing. I just I think that gives me confidence as well seeing how much effort they put into this result. It’s just great to have this now.”
Ewan, meanwhile, had no issues with confidence coming into today’s stage. He’d won Sunday’s curtain-raiser criterium with apparent ease, earning favourite status in what was billed as an almost-certain bunch sprint.
His Lotto-Soudal team rode the front for much of the day, helping to reel in the remnants of a four-rider breakaway with about 35 km to go. But in the final kilometres, as the teams of the sprinters surged towards the front, Ewan’s lead-out train seemed to get derailed. The 25-year-old Aussie was out of contention before the sprint even began.
“We were just a little bit too far back when it mattered,” Ewan said after finishing seventh. “We were always in good position and then when we needed to be in good position we weren’t.
“I’m confident in my form and as long as the team can get me to where I need to be, then I think I can do well.”
The subtext from Ewan was clear: his team, while impressive throughout the stage — likewise on Sunday — had stumbled at the final hurdle today. And in a sprint field that features so many of the world’s best, there’s little room for error.
“In a finish like today if you’re so far back, there’s no chance you can beat them,” Ewan said. “But yeah, I’m confident with my form and I’m confident with my speed. And I know if I’m around them when I start my sprint, then I can beat them.”
— Lotto Soudal (@Lotto_Soudal) January 21, 2020
For Bennett, meanwhile, today’s win comes with an additional honour: wearing the ochre leader’s jersey. He’s four seconds clear atop the general classifaction, which follows the stage placings for the top three. In fourth place sits defending champion Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) who snuck away at today’s first intermediate sprint to take three bonus seconds — a pre-emptive move ahead of the harder stages later in the week.
“Intermediate sprints are where we have won this bike race in the past and we’re not treating this year any different,” said Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White. “They are crucial – the biggest margin we’ve won by is 13 seconds and we’ve won two on countback. Every second does count.”
Tomorrow, the riders will tackle the infamously tough Stirling circuit and its rampy uphill drag to the line. It’s a finish that doesn’t suit Bennett as well as today’s mostly flat run-in, but he’s hoping to be in the mix again.
“I will try to sprint tomorrow,” he said. “I think today’s confidence-building and yeah, it’s early in the season — I think I do need to build a bit more form — but I should be able to manage tomorrow. I’ll hopefully be there to sprint and then see how it goes.”
It’s hard to predict how the stage will go. Solo riders have won in Stirling before, like Will Clarke in 2012; so have punchy all-rounders, like Jay McCarthy in 2016. And the sprinters, too, have had their time, like Ewan who won there in 2018. He’ll be hoping for a repeat victory, of course; an opportunity to bounce back from the disappointment of today.
“It’s always a difficult stage,” Ewan said. “To be honest, it really depends on how the bunch races it. And hopefully it’s easy enough for the sprinters, but we’ll see.”