Sam Bennett aiming to break clear from the pack in 2016
The Carrick-on-Suir rider’s preparations have left him in confident mood this new year
Sam Bennett of Ireland and Bora-Argon18 celebrates winning stage two of the 2015 Arctic Race of Norway, a 162.5km stage between Evenskjer and Setermoen. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
If there was one moment last year which summed up Sam Bennett’s career thus far, it was his success on August 14th in Setermoen. He was riding the Tour of Norway and, after some big disappointment in July, turned things right around again on day two of the race.
Heading into the final few hundred metres of the day’s 155-kilometre stage, he appeared to be badly positioned and hemmed in. However once the sprint started he powered up the middle of the bunch, scything through gaps and then blasting past the other riders to scoop the win.
What was most impressive was not the victory itself, but rather how he bounced back after a demoralising Tour de France. He had made his debut in the race on July 4th despite illness and a disrupted preparation in the run-up to the event.
Bennett fell ill once again during the second half of the race and, running a fever and urinating blood, his body finally broke down four days from Paris.
Bouncing back in Norway took focus and doggedness, but he’d shown those qualities before. Whether it was in the wake of a collision with a car out training several years ago or when he crashed heavily in the Scheldeprijs race last April, he’s been able to turn things around in the past.
He’s physically gifted, but also mentally tough; fighting back is very much in his nature.
As the new season looms on the horizon, though, he’s feeling good. Things have gone perfectly in recent months, he’s ahead rather than behind, and his optimism is rising.
His build-up for 2016 contrasts with that of 12 months earlier. Then, he was ill in the Tour of Britain and had to undergo three and a half weeks of antibiotics before he was able to begin training. He started on the back foot and was playing catch-up for quite some time.
This time around, he’d a perfect end of season. He clocked up win number five of the year in Paris-Bourges in early October, then eased back and took a break. Once back training, he was able to build on the strength he’d amassed in 2015, ramping things up gradually as the season drew closer.
“I am looking forward to it,” he enthuses. “It is funny – at the end of last season I had such motivation to race. I wanted the season to go on for another six months. It really carried through all winter, it never went away and I just wanted the season to begin.
“Last August Tara [his long-time girlfriend] was saying it was like I really found the love for cycling again. She said that the last few years when it was getting hard, even after I turned pro, that it looked like it was a job to me. But she thinks that last August something switched in me; I seemed a lot happier. It seemed like I found the love for it once more.
“Hopefully it comes through in some results. I need big wins”
Bennett’s third pro season will begin at the end of this month in the Challenge Mallorca races, a cluster of events held on the Spanish island. He wants to start clocking up results early on, knowing that he will get a major motivation boost if that happens. However he’s got some bigger medium-term goals in mind.
The first of those comes in March when he and his team line out in the first of the year’s big one day races.
“Milan– San Remo is the longest monument and it is also the real sprinters’ Classic,” he said. “It is something that I really want to be competitive in. It is a race that I would really love to be at my best for, to really go for it and to see what is possible.”
The Italian event was won twice in the past by Sean Kelly, who also hails from Carrick-on-Suir. The former world number one believes Bennett has the attributes necessary to contend, with his ability to climb well on short hills plus his gift of a winning sprint matching the requirements for the near-300 kilometre race known as La Primavera.
The younger rider knows this might be the case but, after finishing five minutes behind the winner John Degenkolb in 2015, he believes he can already make big improvements and return with ambition.
“Last year, I was too heavy in the race,” he admits. “I was four or five kilos lighter in Bayern Rundfahrt [where he beat Degenkolb to take two stages] and all I was saying to myself was, ‘if only I was that light going into Milan Sanremo,’ I would have been over the climbs and fighting at the finish.
“I would like to be ready for it this year, really, really ready. I think in general this season I need a World Tour win. I am 25 now and I really want to make that step up.
“I am happy with the results I got last year but they are not big, big races. I think I need that now.”
Returning to the Tour is, of course, another big goal for him. This time around he hopes that his preparation won’t be so compromised by illness and that he can challenge in the bunch sprints. He’s beaten many of the best sprinters in other races and wants his shot to do so in the Tour.
And there’s the Olympics too. This week it was confirmed that Ireland will have two slots in the Olympic road race, thanks mainly to the points Bennett amassed in 2015. While Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche are older and more experienced than him, he is clear that he’ll do what he can to be considered.
“I am a year older now and with last season in the legs and the strength from this season coming through, I’m definitely going to be looking at what the criteria for qualification is. Hopefully it suits me.”
The course is a lumpy one and, on paper at least, might be tailor-made for Martin. Bennett’s more than just a sprinter, though, and if he continues his progression he may well clock up the sort of results that would see him on a plane to Rio, with Tour de France form in his legs and growing ambition in his mind.