It started in an unexpected way, the chain sliding on the sprockets during a flat-out sprint. Gears jumping, knee thunking the handlebars, a few minutes of pain. It didn’t seem a big deal; it happens, by his estimation, five or six times a year and it never caused an issue.
Until it did.
"I hit my knee, I continued training, I finished my efforts," Sam Bennett remembers, casting his mind back to a fateful day in early June.
“Obviously I was sore when it happened, so I stopped for five minutes. But then I finished my efforts and did an extra hour of VO2 Max training.”
The realisation I wouldn't be going to the Tour was one of the hardest points, especially when I was doing everything in my power to be right for the race
The next day was an easy day; no problem. He flew to Belgium in advance of the Belgium Tour; no problem. And then in a pre-race ride, loosening up the day before the event, disaster.
“I was cycling, and all of a sudden I couldn’t put power through the pedal,” he says. “Like, I couldn’t do a pedal revolution. Then I was nervous.”
Until then, everything had been going brilliantly. Bennett had won the green jersey and two stages in the 2020 Tour de France, and had racked up seven wins in early 2021. He was the quickest sprinter in the peloton and everything looked good for another headline Tour.
But then the knee didn’t heal. The big race came less than three weeks after his injury and, sore and short on fitness, he was unable to go.
“The realisation I wouldn’t be going to the Tour was one of the hardest points, especially when I was doing everything in my power to be right for the race,” he tells the Irish Times now.
“It’s tough, because you work your whole career towards that event . . .the Tour de France is cycling. You’re at the peak of your powers, and then the gears slip and you knee your handlebars. Something so silly and so stupid, and it feels like your whole world falls apart.”
Asked where he was when the Tour peloton rolled out of Brest without him, he takes a moment to work it out. His agent Andrew McQuaid knew he needed to take his mind off the race and so he gifted Bennett and his wife Tara a couple of nights a in hotel in Aix-en-Provence. They went there, used the spa, he rested his knee and tried to switch off. It was the only thing he could do.
“I avoided the whole Tour,” he says. “I couldn’t watch it. I couldn’t. The only time I did was when [Mathieu] van der Poel and [Wout] Van Aert were having a go at the start. I wouldn’t watch it live, but then you’d hear about them. And you’d have to replay it because they were doing some incredible racing. But I wasn’t watching it live at all. I just couldn’t.”
It’s now seven months later. Bennett is at a training camp in Mallorca preparing for the new season. Much has changed since the lows of last summer. His injury has healed and he returned to racing in the autumn, albeit with modest form. He’s been training hard and in December, he and his wife Tara became first time parents.
He’s getting used to life with baby Benjamin, using the spare room at times when his training intensity requires proper sleep, and adapting to being a dad.
“It’s an adjustment period,” he says, sounding both happy and excited. “What’s mad is athletes . . .we are selfish people, you know,” he laughs.
“We are self-absorbed and then you kind of realise it’s not all about you anymore. But he’s doing great and Tara is as well, so it is fantastic.”
Bennett is also back with his former team Bora-hansgrohe, having re-signed with them after two years with Deceuninck-QuickStep. He had originally turned pro with the German team and grew in tandem with it, winning three stages of the Giro d’Italia and two in the Vuelta a España, but ultimately left at the end of 2019 due to a lack of opportunities.
We have the best of everything with bikes and coaches, there is a great race programme, the morale is good
It was the old too-many-chiefs conundrum: multiple world champion Peter Sagan was on Bora, as was the young German sprinter Pascal Ackermann. Both were important for the sponsors and while Bennett was arguably quicker, he found himself missing out on the Giro and the Tour. And so he moved.
Prioritised at Deceuninck-QuickStep, he thrived in 2020. The calendar was reduced by Covid-19 but he won seven races, including those two stages at the Tour de France, as well as the prestigious green jersey. He then took a spate of wins in early 2021 before being sidelined with the injury.
“For me as an athlete, it should have been one of my best years of my career,” he explains. “So missing out was one of the hardest things for me, because, you know, I’m 31 now. Sitting at home with an injury was eating me up. A wasted opportunity, another year gone.”
What also would have hurt were comments about him by his-then Deceuninck-QuickStep team manager in the media. The attacks were personal, and were criticised by many; asked about it now, Bennett declines to speak. He’s a very open and frank interviewee, but on this topic he chooses discretion.
“I absolutely know you have to ask about that, but I’m going to have to skip that one,” he replies.
Fair enough. But did the frustration ever get to the point where he felt, even briefly, like walking away from the sport?
“I can’t . . .I don’t know life without cycling,” he answers. “I’ve had injuries before and I know that only thing you can do is give it its time and let it run its path. The only thing that’s frustrating for me is I know all the work that’s needed to get to the top, that it was going to be three months of training really hard. I know I’ll get over injuries, as long as there is nothing major, so they don’t stress me.
“Obviously, there are moments where you are like, ‘ah, for f**k’s sake’. But I don’t know anything else, you know? I am a bike rider. My world revolves around that.”
Bennett’s old relationship with Bora-hansgrohe began to be rekindled during a long phone call with team manager Ralph Denk last year.
“I didn’t really speak to him for a year and a half, or maybe more. So it was actually nice to talk again. It’s motivating when you’re really wanted in a team. It was a good phone call, it really set me strongly in the direction of coming here.
“It’s been nice. It feels like coming home. We have a good crew here and everybody’s so motivated. We have the best of everything with bikes and coaches, there is a great race programme, the morale is good. To be honest, I’m happy to be back. I am 100 per cent dedicated to the team and I am proud of my move.”
One of the big pluses for Bennett at Deceuninck-QuickStep was a superb leadout train, a group of riders who had the skill and strength to put him in exactly the right position for the bunch sprints.
Bora-hansgrohe has made a number of signings to ensure that he should be equally well supported, including the Kiwi Shane Archbold, Dutchman Danny van Poppel and Irish road race and time trial champion Ryan Mullen.
Now I'm really realistic in what I can do. I know that I'll win again. I'm not worried about that
“They are strong guys and I have full confidence in them,” he says. “So I’m really excited to work with them. And I really do think we’re going to have a lot of success together. I’m excited.”
For now, Bennett’s early race programme takes in the Saudi Tour on February 1st, the UAE Tour from February 20th and probably Paris-Nice and Milan-Sanremo. However he says that this schedule may change. He wants to have the right fitness to be able to challenge in his first races, and if that means sitting some out and training instead, that’s fair enough.
The most important thing is to be in top shape for the Tour in July and the world championships in September.
Encouragingly, missing out last year hasn’t led to a drop in confidence.
“I know my capabilities,” he says. “So now I’m really realistic in what I can do. I know that I’ll win again. I’m not worried about that.”
What’s encouraging for his supporters - and worrying for his rivals - is that he believes he wasn’t in his top shape during the successes of the 2020 Tour.
"My best legs were when I was working with [coach] Dan Lorang before, like in the 2019 Vuelta. I'm back working with him now, and will be stronger at the next Tour than the last time I was there. I don't think that was me at my best."
So what’s more important for him; to claim more stage wins, or to get another green jersey?
“That is a hard one,” he answers, weighing up the two. “Well, it isn’t a hard one. I want the green jersey, obviously. I really want to f**king fight for it.
“There has to be a healthy balance between going for stages and going for green. But I’m going to be putting myself into condition and in a position where I should be able to do both. I want to show that it wasn’t a fluke.”