Sam Bennett: ‘Cycling is who I am. It got me out of my bedroom, out to meet great people’
First Steps to Top Level: The cyclist on his journey to winning the Tour de France green jersey
An emotional Sam Bennett with his parents Michael and Helen after winning the seventh stage of the 2009 FBD Insurance Rás. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
Cyclist Sam Bennett entered the history books last year by becoming only the second Irish man (after Seán Kelly) to win the green jersey in the Tour de France. The spirits of the nation were lifted, at a time we needed it most, as we watched the Tipperary man sprint to the finish of the final stage.
The Carrick-on-Suir native knows a little bit about lifting spirits – he had to lift his own to come out the right side of a make-or-break spell in his career. The trajectory had been scaling since.
How did you get into sport?
The first memories I have of sport would be playing soccer and hurling in school and doing athletics. I was always kind of really a quiet kid, so my parents wanted me in team sports to get me socialising more and to become more outgoing. Because when I was younger although I always loved being on a bike and playing outside the house making ramps and things, I always preferred to be indoors playing video games, and I had my pet birds – I was athletic but I was more of an introvert.
The athletic ability was there, but the interest wasn’t there as much. I found it hard in team sports because I wanted something more individual where everything relied on myself and I could push through and get the final result.
It’s weird because cycling is a team sport, and I really found that out when I became professional and worked my way up. I know this now, but looking back I thought team sports were being part of a team on a pitch. My father came from a football background and my grandfather a hurling background.
There was a mountain biking league the late Bobby Power ran up the top of Seskin. My dad took me up there when I was nine and asked him if I could cycle there, despite being too young to join the league, because he said all I wanted to do was ride a bike and he couldn’t get me into other sports.
I loved it, I could go as hard as I wanted, and I could see the results whereas if I went as hard as I wanted on a pitch I might not necessarily see the results. When you are doing something and you are not seeing results I think it’s always hard to stick at it.
When I was 14 all I wanted to do was road-racing, I had a friend that was doing it with a club, so I went off to races with them in a van with a load of bikes on the roof and all of us squashed into the boot.
When I was underage – I’m a sprinter now – I had no sprint. I was getting dropped at the beginning of races, and I couldn’t stay in the groups. If I did well the other guys would slag the good guys if I beat them because I wasn’t a good rider then.
Was there a time you nearly gave up sport and who encouraged you to keep going?
I was always very focused that sport was something I wanted to do, but there were points where I was asked directly if it’s what I wanted to do by someone else.
When I was sat down at the dinner table with my parents, at round 17 or 18, my dad asked me did I want to have a go of this? I was taken aback because I thought I wouldn’t be pushing every day and week for a bit of craic. It was never a question for myself, but there was a time where somebody asked me, and I was taken aback by the question itself.
I think my parents didn’t want me to feel they were pushing me in any particular direction – they were leaving it up to me, but they wanted to hear it from me.
I could give sport a try because we are a sporting household, but I needed to have a back-up plan, something to fall back on, some kind of education. I have two years of a degree with WIT done and they have supported my choice to give my time to my sport, I haven’t gone back for third year yet.
I also had another stage where my future in cycling was questioned. After multiple injuries and broken bones, I had three years of knee problems I just couldn’t get right.
I was outside the under-23 ranks, I was just elite, and I had given so many years abroad. I was injured again and I was kind of down, and there was a moment where I was having a chat with my dad. He said I haven’t seen you happy in a long time, you’ve given this your everything over the last few years, and you keep getting injured. You can’t say you haven’t tried.
He said to give it to the end of the season, and if I didn’t get my pro contact to go back to college, there was more to life and I could have a good life at home.
That was a real make-or-break moment. That September I won my first professional race, I got my contract and turned pro a month later.
I think there is a point where people are looking at you saying you have potential. There is a moment when that goes, and you have to be getting results. You need to be showing more.
I knew I wasn’t an academic, and in life I think you need to use what you are good at, and this is the only thing I think I’m good at. To me I felt like I had no other option but to make it.
I was tired every day and hungry all the time until the morning of a race day and it all came right.
I locked myself up for months just to try and push to another level and give everything to cycling, and it just came together.
What advice do you have for young people getting into sport?
Always keep it fun, always do a variety of sports when you are younger, try everything – be active. Find what you really love but also don’t be afraid to do other sports – it’s healthy for the body to have different inputs and different stimulants. If you are stuck on a bike all the time it’s not necessarily healthy to be stuck in that position all the time. Do other sports and movements when your body is growing for its posture and health.
For me, I found my identity through sport – cycling is who I am. It got me out of my bedroom, it got me out to meet great people, and it got me around the world.
Sport is something fantastic and it can do a lot for people and give them an identity.