Sam Bennett just entered the history books of the Tour de France, but you wouldn’t guess it hearing him speak.
The Irish sprinter took two stage victories in the 2020 edition, including the unofficial World Championships of sprinting on the Champs-Élysées, and took the green jersey after a fierce three-week battle with Peter Sagan and his old team.
Bennett is only the sixth Irishman in history to win a stage in the race, and his points classification title is the first Tour de France jersey for the nation since Sean Kelly in 1989.
But despite all the celebrations, the post-Tour criterium races, and countless interviews that come with being a star rider, Bennett is still quick to crack a joke and his modesty shines through regardless.
'Glass case of emotion'
Speaking to journalists via Zoom two days after his victory in Paris, Bennett said: “I haven't really got time to relax yet.
“Last night was the first good night's sleep I had in a couple of days with the stress. So I’m pretty tired but even then this is probably one of the only moments I sat down, my body won't settle. It just wants to keep moving.
“So I'm thinking I'm still on a high, the adrenaline is still going. I keep replaying videos and getting teary eyed.”
“I'm in a glass case of emotion,” Bennett added with a laugh, a reference to Will Ferrell’s Anchorman.
The response is Bennett all over - a slow and thoughtful answer, followed by a joke and a cheeky smile.
Back home in Monaco, Bennett told journalists that after securing the green jersey and the stage in Paris, he was happy to stay in the hotel lobby with pizzas, and share a glass of whiskey with Deceuninck team boss Patrick Lefevere.
Bennett may have flourished later than most sprinters, taking his first WorldTour win at 26 years old - compared to Mark Cavendish at 22, or Caleb Ewan at 21 - but regardless he has fought for his place amongst the fastest of his generation.
The Champs-Élysées, Milan-San Remo, World Champs
“As a kid, the Champs-Élysées is the one sprint I played over and over again, that side view of the sprinters coming around the corner and sprinting all the way to the line," Bennett said.
“I thought hopefully someday I’d be in the mix there and I’d have footage of it, but there’s footage now of me in the green jersey winning it.”
The 29-year-old added: “The three races I would love to win more than anything were the Champs-Élysées, Milan-San Remo and World Champs.
“Champs-Élysées is something I never thought I'd get, it's the sprinters' World Champs and I did it in the bloody green jersey like holy crap.”
Bennett’s return to the Tour de France was long-awaited after he won three stages of the 2018 Giro and two in the 2019 Vuelta.
Earning his place
But as his old Bora-Hansgrohe team favoured their star rider Peter Sagan and developing their German sprinter Pascal Ackermann, Bennett wasn’t given the opportunity until he signed with his dream squad, Deceuninck - Quick-Step at the start of 2020.
On winning his stages in the Tour, he said: “It's like I fully deserved my place within Deceuninck - Quick-Step. Because you know like sometimes you can have a little bit of imposter syndrome that you don't know if you're good enough to be in this position, because the riders that have come through in this position, and they've always got results there, I didn't want to be the first not to get it.
“I hope that doesn't sound too cocky, but it's comforting. It takes pressure off and now I just want to go again for the next race.”
The Sagan rivalry
One of the most exciting sub-plots of this year’s Tour was the battle for green between Deceuninck and Bennett’s old team Bora, as Peter Sagan tried for his eighth points title.
Bennett said: “To be able to compete with a ride like Sagan, who is so incredibly strong, was one of my highlights in my careers, because he's a three-time world champion and it was an enjoyable battle.
“It hurt a lot, it was so intense but it was enjoyable.”
There was a fairly common misconception during the 2020 Tour that it was Bennett’s first time in the race, when in fact he has two other trips around France under his belt, in the 2015 and 2016 Tours.
But after a DNF in his first Tour, Bennett was then the Lanterne Rouge (dead last in the general classification) the following year. This year was a new experience.
He said: “It did all feel new to me because I came back as a different rider. Before I just wasn't ready, but it was a fantastic opportunity for the experience, but when you're racing, and you're capable, you're in a different part of the race.
“It's a different race within the race that you're not racing to survive, you're racing and get results.
“So in one sense it did feel like my debut.”
Despite all his huge success away from the Tour, there was a feeling that Bennett hadn’t caught the imagination of the Irish public.
“I'm competing at the highest level and have been for a number of years,” Bennett said. “And in other countries, people have been doing less within the sport and were getting much more recognition.
“It's not that I only did the sport for that, but I still thought I'm doing pretty good here and am I doing something wrong? Did I say something? Do I rub people up the wrong way or what? It was weird."
“But I knew if I wanted that recognition it would have to be at the Tour de France that I got the results.”
He added: “But then again there's another aspect where, as I said, I'm not the guy who likes to be in big groups of people, I like my quiet nights in. So now after putting myself in the position, I don't know if I actually want to be there.”
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Alex Ballinger is editor of BikeBiz magazine, the leading publication for the UK cycle industry, and is the former digital news editor for CyclingWeekly.com. After gaining experience in local newsrooms, national newspapers and in digital journalism, Alex found his calling in cycling, first as a reporter, then as news editor responsible for Cycling Weekly's online news output, and now as the editor of BikeBiz. Since pro cycling first captured his heart during the 2010 Tour de France (specifically the Contador-Schleck battle) Alex covered three Tours de France, multiple editions of the Tour of Britain, and the World Championships, while both writing and video presenting for Cycling Weekly. He also specialises in fitness writing, often throwing himself into the deep end to help readers improve their own power numbers. Away from the desk, Alex can be found racing time trials, riding BMX and mountain bikes, or exploring off-road on his gravel bike. He’s also an avid gamer, and can usually be found buried in an eclectic selection of books.
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