‘I know I’m 30 but I feel 27’: A Q&A with Sam Bennett
In less than three weeks, the 2021 Tour de France will get underway in Brittany. There will be quite a few opportunities for the sprinters in this year’s race, and most of the fastest finishers in cycling will be in attendance. One rider, though, currently stands out as cycling’s speediest speedster, supported by its most reliable lead-out train: Sam Bennett, who won two stages and the green jersey at last year’s race, has established himself as the sprinter to beat in cycling today.
At the moment, Bennett’s main priority is tuning up his own form and getting into sync with his lead-out train (and he may also be busy trying to figure out what’s next as his contract with Deceuninck-QuickStep ends this year – for now, he remains undecided on that front).
As much as he has going on right now, however, Bennett took some time to chat with CyclingTips about his career up to this point, the current state of sprinting and racing generally, and his upcoming objectives. Here’s what the 30-year-old Irishman had to say as the Tour looms…
CyclingTips: Sam, after about a month away from competition, you’re returning to racing this week at the Baloise Belgium Tour, which will be your last stage racing ride ahead of the Tour de France. What are you hoping to get out of the tune-up ride there?
Sam Bennett: At the minute we have [Davide] Ballerini in front of [Michael] Morkov and I thought it was a good idea for the guys to get more racing together and get more of a feel for each in the final, because the more races you do, the more things flow. … It’s always nice to pick up some more wins as well. We’re professional enough to get ourselves in shape but it’s about getting the race experience and the race feel before the Tour.
CT: You arrived at the top of the sprinting food chain perhaps a bit later than others who have been there. Why do you think that was?
SB: At the start of my career, I had an accident with a car, was hit head on, and it took quite a few years to get myself back in working order. I had a lot of problems from that. It took really three years to get training consistently and racing consistently without problems. And I think maybe if I came from a bigger cycling country, maybe more opportunities would have come my way. But I think in the end, the way it happened was good for me. It was character-building. It made me realize I wanted it more than I realized. I always really had to fight for my places.
I think I’ve always been three years behind because of the way my career started. And it took me quite a while to discover how I need to train to really be at the top of my game. And then once I got there, I had to learn how to be more consistent and how to hold form throughout the year, how to peak and come off a peak. It took a lot of years to get that. And I think I spent so many years really training like a pure, pure sprinter and in the end, that really didn’t work for me. When I got quicker or slower in training with the numbers in my sprints, it never came out in my races. The biggest thing for me was to train to be strong enough to get to the finish fresher. The fresher I get to the finish, the better I am. It’s kind of weird – I know I’m a sprinter but I’m better when I don’t really train my sprint, but when I just train my engine.
CT: That’s interesting – and it’s not the first time we’ve heard that. Caleb Ewan told us the same thing a few weeks ago about focusing on everything but the sprints.
SB: The way cycling is going, I even just noticed after the lockdown last year, the level just f—ing shot through the roof. Everybody is able to train, everybody has access to nutrition and everything, and the standard just went through the roof. Now, I think, the time of the heavier sprinter with no engine is kind of gone. You have to be strong to get there to be able to sprint. Otherwise you’re too dead, you’re no good anymore.
CT: Do you feel like things settled down in 2021?
SB: The start of the season, it continued. I really thought there would be a big dip, but there wasn’t. I do see it kind of settling a bit more now. I say the standard is still a bit higher but it has settled the last month or two. But I don’t know, maybe it was just me going into smaller races like Algarve instead of WorldTour races. So I can guarantee I’ll feel the level is quite a bit higher at the Tour.
CT: At this point in your career, do you still feel like you’re getting better?
SB: I think there’s more room for me to grow. I know I’m 30, but I feel 27 just because of the years I’ve missed. I feel like I can progress for another few years, and I do think there’s room for improvement with regards to the engine. Hopefully I think another little bit. If I improve too much I might lose too much speed. But I think I can improve quite a bit.
CT: Now that you’ve won stages in all three Grand Tours and a green jersey too, what goals are you still hoping to achieve?
SB: You want to be more successful in the Tour de France. If the opportunity comes your way, get more green jerseys, but that’s going to be very hard. Last year, it was super hard, and I do think it affected my ability to go for individual stages. It worked out great, it was fine, but I do think going forward, it’s very hard to do both. Even though getting stages, the green jersey comes your way. But it’s a lot more work behind the green jersey than people realize.
For sure, I want to get more stages in the tour but also races like Milan-Sanremo, Gent-Wevelgem, really have a go at the Classics maybe a little bit later in my career. And also the world championships. As a sprinter it’s something you always want to try and target, but it’s a very hard one to get because everybody wants that.
CT: You have the best lead-out in the business right now, but at the same time, it seems like the sport is getting away from the time of massive lead-out trains. Riders are surfing the wheels more and more these days. How important is the lead-out to your success?
SB: I definitely think it’s a big gain. The more times you get delivered in the right place, the more chances you have of winning. It also takes the pressure off of ‘how do I get in the right position and get there?’ That pressure is on someone else’s shoulders and you just focus on sticking to them and then doing your job in the final. It definitely helps in the final. And going for intermediate sprints, it can take a lot of energy and a lot of the strain away going for intermediates, you can save the legs for later in the race. I think I have one of the most experienced lead-out trains in the business now.
CT: You’ve got so many big stars in the team and some of them will have different goals. Are you expecting the Tour team to be built around your sprint goals or to have more mixed objectives?
SB: It’s going to be quite mixed but now, like you said, people are kind of surfing more. So yeah, I do have a train and I have quite good guys in front of me but most of the time, in the final, we’re going to be moving with just three guys. We are surfing quite a bit. It’s kind of a mixture of surfing and a train, if that makes sense. Because you can’t come from the front and lead it out from 2 k. That’s just too long nowadays. So yeah, I’ll get all the support I need to be in the run for a victory.
CT: Is there anything that you wished fans knew more about life as a sprinter?
SB: That sprinters don’t have a rest day on a climbing day. We’re still doing numbers – we’re just going a lot slower than the climbers. I say that jokingly [but] it is true. But I think I’m one of the guys that doesn’t really stay out in the public eye that much so there’s nothing really that I need to share.
CT: Speaking of which, what’s that been like? You’re one of the world’s fastest sprinters riding for one of the world’s biggest teams. How has life been now that you’re more in the public eye?
SB: If I’m really honest, it hasn’t changed much at all. I do notice at Belgian races people know you a lot more but with the pandemic, you’re wearing a mask most of the time. Nobody recognizes you. And also I’m riding in a team with a lot of superstars. If you have the world champ’s jersey beside [when] you’re going down the road, I blend into the background. I don’t think I stand out as much.
I do notice there’s more pressure and I’m a focus point for other riders in the bunch sprints to judge their efforts on. That was something that took quite a bit to get used to. But for the rest, I love the position I’m in. I love being at the top of my game. Being one of the top guys is quite nice.
CT: Thanks Sam, and good luck at the Tour …