By Gregor Brown
Sam Bennett’s progression to becoming one of the peloton’s fastest sprinters continued apace throughout 2017. A stage win at Paris-Nice in spring followed by a string of top-three placings in the Giro d’Italia confirmed his steadily growing status. But it was at the Tour of Turkey in mid-October that he really hit the headlines, winning four of the six stages.
He may not have faced the strongest opposition in Turkey, but the flurry of WorldTour points he earned there catapulted him to 65th in the rankings, Bora-Hansgrohe’s third best rider after Rafal Majka (43rd) and the one and only Peter Sagan (third).
While it looks like there is more to come from the 27-year-old Irishman, this season already looks like payback for his dogged determination, something he has shown from an early age.
Despite his father Michael encouraging him toward a career in football, a sport the former played professionally, Bennett chose cycling. He shone from an early age, taking a junior European title on the track in 2008. The following year a head-on crash with a car while training left him with imbalances and tendonitis, for which he eventually underwent two rounds of knee surgery.
Riding with Sagan
Following two years as an amateur with VC La Pomme Marseille, Sean Kelly’s An Post team gave him his first break in 2011, and despite lingering problems from injuries, he persevered.
“I decided [to give it] one last shot,” Bennett said of his third season with An Post. “I put my whole self into training and riding my bike, and if it failed, I was going to go back to university. I started winning in Belgium and in the 2013 Tour of Britain I had the form of my life.
"On the second stage, I got stuck in the big gear and only Milan-San Remo winner Gerald Ciolek passed me. I won stage five and in the last stage, I was second to Mark Cavendish.”
Ralph Denk signed Bennett for NetApp-Endura after that Tour of Britain and has stood by him ever since. Denk already fielded him in the 2015 and 2016 Tours and several times this year, even with Sagan in the roster, looked to Bennett to lead the squad.
“Everything just clicked this year with Peter coming in and the new ideas and working with my new coach Dan Lorang,” continues Bennett. “It has all really helped me step up.
“I was worried that [Sagan joining] might close doors, but the reality is that it opened them with more support and more... everything,” Bennett explains. “The pressure for results comes from myself. Peter is there smashing it, and that makes it easier for us in a sense but I put the pressure on myself.
“Teams know that we are the team with Sagan. It brings more respect and it makes our job a lot easier. You’re no longer pushed out of the sprint with the other Professional Continental teams. Now, it’s not as if they will hand it to you, but you get respect and that makes it a bit easier. You save energy and can get a better result.”
Watch: Paris-Nice 2017 stage three highlights
Bennett fell sick at the start of this year’s Giro d’Italia but still managed to finish with promising results.
Three times he raced to third place and once finished second behind Fernando Gaviria.
These experiences — racing the Tour, winning a stage in Paris-Nice and coming close in the Giro — allowed Bennett to think big for 2018.
“I would like to win a one-day WorldTour race and a Grand Tour stage. It would be fantastic if it would happen next year.
“On the right day, yes,” he says when asked about beating any of the top sprinters. “The only person that’s hard to beat when on top form is Marcel Kittel. He takes one or two bike lengths on world-class sprinters.
“The big ones for me are Milan-San Remo, the final Tour stage and the World Championships. But I don’t think I’m there yet.”
Thinking like a winner
Should he ever get there, it’s a list of wins that would bring comparisons to Kelly himself.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but Kelly wasn’t an inspiration,” he explains. “When I was young, like 10 or 12, I just thought he was this old guy who everybody talked about. You don’t understand when you are younger.
“Then you go abroad to do some of the races and just try to finish them and you ask yourself, ‘How many times did he win this race!?’”
Irishman Bennett was actually born in Wervik, Belgium, where his father was playing professional football. Back in Ireland his dad tried to push a shy young Bennett towards football and away from his PlayStation.
“He didn’t consider cycling a team sport and he wanted me to socialise. With the confidence of winning races, I came out of my shell. Sport takes you into new environments and forces you to be more sociable. Sport opened up all that for me.”
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