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There was a season, some eight years ago, when Sam Bennett almost hung up his wheels. He was 21, a good bike racer, an Irishman pulled under the wing of Sean Kelly’s An Post development team. But the next step was a tall one. He was plagued by knee injuries and sickness. His confidence was low. It was now, or never.
Perhaps that season was in his thoughts as he paused to collect himself on Tuesday, sitting in his first TV interview as the winner of a Tour de France stage. Still fighting off disbelief, he shook his head and then thanked, in tears, his wife and his director and his teammates and “everyone involved,” a list that for any professional cyclist stretches back into their teens, to all the people who guided and shaped and propped up and grounded.
People like Kurt Bogaerts, the director of An Post, who was one of many to convince Bennett to keep going eight years ago. There’s a video, floating around on the Internet still, in which Bogaerts discusses Bennett’s 2013 stage win at An Post Rás. “This is what Sam needed,” Bogaerts says. “He’s had ups and downs. This is really what he needs. Confidence.”
Bennett signed for NetApp, stepping up to the Pro-Continental level, the following year. That team became Bora and then moved into the WorldTour. He raced his first Tour de France in 2016 and finished as the lanterne rouge in Paris. He’s won stages at the Giro and the Vuelta, but before this Tour, the Champs-Élysées in 2016 provided his best Tour stage finish, ninth.
Sprinters usually know when they’ve won, but on Tuesday Bennett wasn’t sure. “I forgot to throw the bike at the line,” he said. “I thought he might have got me.” He rolled 150 meters past the finish and pulled up as teammates gathered around. “Did I get it?” He asked them. “You got it!” They told him. He shook his head, not ready to believe them.
He questioned his bike throw, and his timing. He questioned his choice of gear. He thought Caleb Ewan must have passed him, just as he did before.
“Yeah, but did I really win it?” he repeated into his radio, his teammates looking on. “It was so close. I don’t trust it.”
When you’ve already been waiting a decade, what’s a few more seconds to confirm?
Even later, as Bennett sat down for his TV interviews, it hadn’t fully settled. “You’ve won. I’m telling you you’ve won,” the interviewer said. And we watched, in real-time, what it means to win a Tour de France stage.
“You know, you dream of it, and never think it’ll happen. And it does. It did.”