To understand how close Sam Bennett came to winning the European Championship road race title here in Munich on Sunday listen to him recall in intricate detail how things could so easily have been different.
The 31-year-old Bennett has 57 wins in his professional career and only one so far this season, at the one-day Eschborn-Frankfurt back on May 1st. They say class is permanent and it’s only a matter of time now before Bennett proves that to be true.
There was gentle irony in the fact the bunch sprint finish after four and a half hours of racing was won here by Fabio Jakobson, the 25 year-old Dutch rider who last season was Bennett’s team-mate at Deceuninck-QuickStep – now Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl. Bennett finished fifth, given the same time.
Perhaps with not so gentle irony Jakobson’s lead-out rider here was Danny van Poppel, Bennett’s now team-mate at Bora-hansgrohe, given Bennett himself was isolated from his Irish team-mates heading into the last 5km.
“We set off today really believing we had a chance of winning.” Bennett said of the five-rider Irish team that included Eddie Dunbar, Ryan Mullen, Matthew Teggart and Rory Townsend.
“The guys did a fantastic job, keeping me fed and watered, and in a great position all day. I really wanted them to get me to a lap and a half as fresh as possible, and they did exactly what we planned.
“The circuit was very dangerous, and it was going to be a bit of a lottery because it wasn’t such a hard day there were a lot of fresh legs there in the final. So it was a bit of a lottery, but I think I rode a very smart final, kept on Belgium, there were very well organised, then I saw my team-mate Danny, knew he’s a really good last man. He had Fabio right on his wheel and when they kicked past me I thought ‘right, change of plan’.
“I left Arnaud Démare come in on that wheel, and I should have taken it back. But I really thought he’s go early. If he did that would have given me a bike length and the slip stream on Fabio, would have catapulted me up. Bit of a risk, but in the end it didn’t happen. But it’s a step in the right direction. Obviously I’m disappointed, but I was there. And I can take a bit of confidence going into the Vuelta that it’s not going to be long now until the wins start coming again.”
Démare from France took silver, Tim Merlier from Belgium bronze, and next stop for Bennett and Mullen will be that Vuelta a España, which starts in Utrecht on Friday and affords Bennett several chances to add to his three previous stage wins in the race.
“Yeah, just once it clicks it will just take off. Like, at the end of the day I’m only human. I was injured and I was off the bike for so long that I kind of forgot I was at such a high level until I was trying to get it back. It took me years to get there, it’s not just going to come back in a few months.
“It’s taken the year. I can see it coming, I can feel that it’s nearly there, I just need a last little bit and then it will be ready to go take off. Regardless of what happens in the Vuelta – I’m pretty sure we should get a stage there – but it should set me up for the winter and come back stronger next year.”
Bennett also spoke about another knee injury sustained earlier in the season: “I was out about three or four months last year, got it sorted in September and then this year when I was coming back and starting with the gym work, I injured my left knee, my other knee, two times, but I kept it quiet because I just couldn’t be armed explaining it. I hate moaning about it in the moment but once it’s done, I don’t mind saying it happened. I’d rather just hide, fix the problems and come back.”
The 209.4km race started in Murnau Staffelsee on the foothills of the Alps, finishing with five 10km loops of the city around Odeonsplatz. German favourite Pascal Ackermann saw his challenge end with a crash on the second of five laps, Jakobson adding to his 11 wins so far this season, including Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and stages at Paris-Nice, Tour of Belgium and Tour de France.
It was a reminder too of cycling’s shifting fortunes: in 2020 Bennett enjoyed by far his best to date, the then 29-year-old from Carrick-on-Suir winning two stages of the Tour de France, the fifth rider in history to win in Paris while also wearing the green jersey, while Jakobson was recovering from a vicious crash at the pandemic-delayed Tour of Poland, later requiring facial reconstruction.