Sam Bennett and Ryan Mullen have both been named to the Bora-Hansgrohe team selection for the Vuelta a España, with the announcement on Friday morning ensuring they will line out for the start in Utrecht in one week’s time.
Bennett will be the team’s designated sprinter and will aim to add to the three career victories he has clocked up thus far in the event.
The announcement will come as a relief to fans of Irish cycling, and indeed to the riders themselves.
Both were expected to compete in the Tour de France in July but were ultimately passed over for selection when the team decided to target a top three finish with the Russian rider Alexandr Vlasov. Bora-Hansgrohe picked specific riders to support that challenge, leaving the two Irishmen at home.
Bennett told The Irish Times recently that he was disappointed with the decision and had taken time to adjust to the news. However although he believed he would have been in the shape to challenge for stage wins, he said that he accepted that the team had to choose what strategy it felt was best.
Vlasov ultimately finished fifth overall and the team missed out on a stage victory.
Riding the Vuelta is of significant importance for Bennett’s career. He won two stages plus the green jersey in the 2020 Tour de France and was the standout sprinter of the first part of the 2021 season. However he injured his knee during training and missed last year’s race, being sidelined until September.
He has taken just one win this year, the Eschborn Frankfurt race on May 1st. At least six out of the 21 Vuelta stages could end in big sprints and if Bennett hits the race in top form, he could well land his first Grand Tour stage since the 2020 Tour. Mullen will play a crucial role in his leadout train.
Sprinters very much thrive on success and momentum. There is a sense that if Bennett takes one stage it could get him fully back on track, with more victories likely to follow.
European Championship opportunity
Both he and Mullen will test their form in this Sunday’s European road race championships in Munich. Although the race is hilly early on, the flatter second half could see things come down to a bunch gallop.
The duo will be joined by Eddie Dunbar, Matthew Teggart and national road race champion Rory Townsend in the race.
The latter is a good sprinter in his own right and said he is fully committed to helping Bennett.
“I will go into the race thinking about trying to get a good result for Ireland,” he said. “I feel the best way of doing that is through Sam. Sam is one of the quickest guys in the world on his day, so I am hoping we can deliver him to a good result.
“If he is not in a position to deliver that, of course I’d love to have my own opportunity there. But being quite realistic, I know that he is the best opportunity we have. So I want to do everything in my powers to give him the best shot at that.”
The decision on team tactics will be decided closer to the start but Townsend has an idea where he could slot into the leadout train.
“It will be interesting to see how he likes to play things. But I think I could go as the last leadout man and deliver him in a pretty good position,” he said.
“I am not as fast as Sam in a straight-up sprint, but I don’t think I am slow either. So hopefully I can position him in a good place and drop him off where he needs to be.”