Ian O’Riordan: Awesome Bennett at the height of his considerable powers
It was a flat-out race down the valley to catch master sprinter record a stage victory
Sam Bennett celebrates on the podium after winning the sixth stage of the UAE tour cycling race, from Deira Islands to Palm Jumeriah, Dubai, UAE. Photograph: Gian Mattia D’Alberto/LaPresse via AP
The plan was to head towards Glencree for a quick spin and be back in time for the bunch sprint finish on Palm Jumeirah. When the sky is bright and the birds singing there are no excuses, and even if every road within a 5km radius of my home is unyielding and hilly and sometimes cruel the real purpose for going out is not about the bike.
Unless he punctured or crashed, everything about Stage 6 of the UAE Tour appeared to have Sam Bennett’s name written all over it, especially after his tactically prefect win on Wednesday’s Stage 4: unlike the two midweek mountain stages, which of course Bennett effectively doesn’t contest given he’s in the race to win on the flat, this would be another sprint of pure power too as finishes don’t come much flatter or faster than on the tree-shaped Palm Jumeirah island in Dubai, which by way has a radius of exactly 5km.
They were scheduled to finish shortly after noon, which gave me about an hour to drop down towards The Devil’s Elbow, where the Glencullen River marks the border between the Dublin and Wicklow mountains, switch back up the ferocious ramp of a road and around again towards the sunny side of the Glencree valley, which is more or less 5km in length and so just about within my safe limit for exercising either on or off my bike.
It would be a straight out and back ride to the top of the valley and the old Glencree Barracks, one of the five barracks built along the Wicklow Military Road during its construction beginning in 1801, parts of which feel like they like they haven’t been upgraded since.
After passing a couple of lone riders also enjoying the first gentle hint of warmth in the air came a nagging feeling that something might still be missed in Dubai, prompting a flat-out race back down the valley at top speed thinking to myself how great a bike is this Cannondale SuperSix EVO?
They were still 25km from Palm Jumeirah, which is obviously not quite as iconic as the Champs-Élysées on the last day of the Tour de France, only not a bad place to win a stage.
Things got a bit messy around the U-turn with exactly 5km to go, before Bennett’s team Deceuninck-QuickStep moved to the front, his loyal lead-out man Michael Morkov then taking care of business before Bennett hit the power button in the last 100 metres.
With that Bennett wrapped up his second bunch sprint victory, two days after securing the 50th win of his professional career, finishing over a bike length clear of rivals Elia Viviani and Pascal Ackermann and affording himself time again to raise his right arm in triumph.
Bennett also has the chance for a hat-trick of wins in what is his first race of the year assuming Saturday’s final stage into Abu Dhabi Breakwater also ends in a bunch sprint:
“Oh, I think it’s down to my teammates, and a very fast bike!” and with that turning the camera and giving it two thumbs up. Of course his success is clearly not about the bike here either, not when plenty of other sprinters race on a Specialized S-Works, though Bennett might well have thanked his fast shoes too while he was at it.
Because Bennett worked closely with Specialized in developing a new cycling shoe for 2021, the S-Works Ares (named after the Greek god of war and retailing for €420), which somewhat boldly claim to offer a 7-watt increase in power to the pedals, worth a speed increase of 14 seconds over 10km.
Specialized designer Rob Cook described Bennett as being “super analytical”, and felt existing designs allowed too much movement of the foot within the shoe, creating some sensation of a lag in pedal stroke during flat out sprinting.
It’s another reminder of how cycling is constantly embracing the technology of the sport, while also recognising the need to keep some limit on it all, which is the UCI’s job, and includes such other matters as keeping in check the length of the rider’s socks.
And while the debate around the technological improvement in running shoes and spikes is becoming increasingly tired and well worn, Bennett’s reference to the speed of his bike, in jest or otherwise, is a reminder too that there’s no point in making any great secret of it.
While Bennett’s position in the general classification is also usually of little concern compared to his position in the points classification, assuming he’s chasing that position in the first place, there’s been further technical evidence this week as to why he’s now the pound-for-pound best sprinter in the world right now.
Thanks to the now standard power meter, which allows the rider to track and measure their individual performance over say the length of a Grand Tour stage, Bennett’s sprinting ability has been further laid bare: while he averaged 72.2kmph in the last 10 seconds of Friday’s sprint, which was just over the 68.9kmph he averaged on Wednesday’s Stage 4 win, he’d also recorded a maximum wattage output on Wednesday of 1595, which most top sprinters will tell you can be just as important as top speed, because the “watts don’t lie”.
A watt being a watt, whether on a bike or in the light bulb of your sitting room, that was more than enough to power a single household’s electricity at normal consumption level (one horsepower is also equal to 746 watts).
Positioned in either the pedal crank or rear wheel hub, the power meter acts as a sort of fancy fuel gauge and rev counter, the power in this case being the rate at which energy is being used by the rider over a given time, and few riders are producing more of that power in a sprint right now than Bennett.
Being an elite professional rider, Bennett has no need for a device which might tell you when you’ve cycled beyond the 5km radius of your home in the middle of a third lockdown.
Then technology in any walk of life is often a tightrope between perfect and overkill, and almost a full year into a global pandemic not being able to cycle beyond a 5km radius of anywhere in this country is surely overkill, especially if riding solo.
It won’t be long before we’re hurling derision at T.S. Eliot again for being wrong about the cruellest month, and ask anyone right now what is the important purpose in getting outside for a cycle in this fine weather and this time of year and they will tell you it’s definitely not about the bike.