Sam Bennett believes he has stepped up to “another level” this season after securing his first WorldTour victory earlier in the spring, as he targets a maiden Grand Tour stage win at the Giro d’Italia.
The 26-year-old Irishman scored his biggest career win to date on stage three of Paris-Nice in March, and is starting his first Giro this weekend in Sardinia.
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His Bora-Hansgrohe team went up to WorldTour level at the start of the 2017 season, with world champion Peter Sagan joining the German squad. Bennett admitted the changes have had a positive effect on his development so far.
“A lot has changed this year with Peter coming onto the team and going WorldTour with the equipment, the whole structure and support you get,” Bennett told Cycling Weekly before heading to a two-week pre-Giro altitude training camp in Sierra Nevada, Spain.
“Before I was always wondering if everything I was doing was correct and right, and now all the stresses are away and I can offload that to other people. Everything flows a lot better and the results are flowing. I feel like the first half of the season I am on another level.”
At Paris-Nice, Bennett beat the likes of Marcel Kittel, André Greipel, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb in the sprint and said the win has helped increase his standing in the peloton and his confidence with the Giro starting.
“For the confidence it can work pretty well. Also just within the peloton teams take me more seriously in the sprint as well,” he said. “I don’t know how it works but when you’re not regarded as one of the top sprinters you’re kind of pushed out of that bubble coming into the final – I’m a bit more accepted in that now I think.”
Despite picking up a cold that ruled forced him to leave the Tour of the Basque Country on stage one, Bennett’s energies are focussed on the Giro – what will be his third Grand Tour. He suffered all the way to Paris at last year’s Tour de France with a hand injury after crashing on stage two of the race.
“All the quickest guys were there in Paris-Nice except for Caleb [Ewan] and Cav [Mark Cavendish]. I can’t see if I had good luck on the day [at the Giro] and things just fell for me why I couldn’t win a stage. But I try not to put too much pressure on myself.”
Taking a new approach to training
Bennett attributes part of his newfound form with a change to his training programme over the winter, as despite scoring three victories in 2016 at the Critérium International, Giro della Toscana and Paris-Bourges, he hoped for more out of the season.
“Last year it was frustrating because I trained so hard and absolutely killed myself and I got nothing out of it,” he explained. “My mentality before was that for training to be proper training I had to absolutely kill myself, it wasn’t even my trainer’s fault, it was that everything he gave me I was doing to the best of my ability.
“The winter just I really did nothing compared to other years, and everything clicked. I think going to the races a bit fresher has helped a lot.
“I feel like I have an extra spring, I feel a lot more fresh; even mentally I can go deeper because I’m not absolutely killing myself all week.”
After spending three seasons with Continental squad An-Post ChainReaction, Bennett joined NetApp-Endura in 2014 with the squad becoming Bora-Argon 18 a year later before it stepped up to the WorldTour ranks this year.
The staff on the team, Bennett said, more than doubled, as he cited an incident at the start of the year when he had a knee problem and had “six people helping me”. The addition of Sagan to the line up has also brought significantly more attention and publicity to the squad at races.
“I was a bit nervous as I didn’t know where I would stand in the team, but everything’s worked really well. Peter’s a great guy and he brought a nice few guys with him. Everyone gets on so well,” Bennett said.
“This year the atmosphere outside the bus is crazy. It’s a lot different, I don’t know how he [Sagan] does it; it’s non-stop for him. His job is all day every day; I’d have to switch off.”