It began like a slow bicycle race and ended in a proper flat out sprint and with that Sam Bennett exhibited another unrivalled turn of pedal and power to take his second stage win of Paris-Nice.
Only it was far from straightforward, Bennett, quite deliberately it seemed, gently pushed off the lead-out train of his team Deceuninck-QuickStep, forcing him to ride to the far left of the road with just over 1km remaining in order to regain his desired position.
Once he did – and it was touch and go – Bennett hit the front with just over 200 metres remaining, and just like in Sunday's opening stage at St Cyr L'Ecole none of his sprint rivals could match him, the Irish rider winning stage 5 by a bike length from Nacer Bouhanni (Arkéa-Samsic) and his old German rival Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
The 200km-long trek between Vienne and Bollene, running through the heart of the Rhone Valley and the second longest of the eight-day race, was a proper test of endurance too before Bennett got his chance to strike. After five hours and 16 minutes in the saddle Bennett afforded himself another victory salute, but this was a long and hard day’s work.
“Yeah the guys were incredible today,” said Bennett, who now has five Paris-Nice stage wins, this also the 53rd of his professional career. “I was suffering the last few km, and I don’t know what it is, people won’t let me follow my own train here, and it’s frustrating. In the final [1km] I just got back around, before the roundabout, but it was a very hard final [sprint]. I didn’t think I would hold it to the line, but the guys did an incredible job, and I’m just proud I could finish it off.”
Pressed on that matter of being taken off his lead-out train, particularly Michael Morkov – if you can’t beat him, box him in – Bennett admitted he essentially had to cut himself off the front of the race in order to get back there, a couple of riders from rival teams seen to be happy to ride in directly in front of him.
“Yeah, for some reason, I’m not being let follow my own [team’s] wheel, guys are coming in and it seems just want to disrupt our sprint, instead of concentrating on their own race. We don’t look at anybody else, so I don’t know why they’re getting so fixated on us.”
Maybe you’re just too strong, Bennett was told: “Well maybe not me, but my team-mates are too strong yeah.”
Bennett’s win also gives him back sole ownership of the green jersey, as he now leads that classification with 36 points, with Primoz Roglic of Jumbo-Visma, falling briefly with 35km to go, staying on 26 points, while also retaining his overall race lead at 31 seconds, ahead of defending champion Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
With three hilly stages to come before Sunday’s finish – which won’t now happen on the famed Promenade des Anglais, due to revised restrictions around Covid-19 (the seafront is to be made available to local residents) – Bennett’s focus will likely be retaining that green jersey, knowing he might well have had three stages wins, had he not finished fifth on stage 2 into Amilly, timing his effort there just a little too late.
“I was really happy to get the first stage, and I was really, really disappointed the second sprint day, not to get closer, to really compete that day, so I really wanted to make up for it today, it’s brilliant, can’t thank the guys enough. So from now on it will be about strength and conditioning, until the end of the race, then Milan-San Remo, hopefully.”
Bennett may be tiring a little of the Seán Kelly references, but this stage win into Bollene has some history there too, as in 1983 it was the starting point for a stage won by Kelly, en route to the second of his seven consecutive outright wins. Bennett now ties the five stages won by Stephen Roche in the famous Race to The Sun, as he previously won two stages in 2019, plus another in 2017.
Stage 5 results
(Vienne — Bollene 203km):
1 Sam Bennett (Irl) Deceuninck-QuickStep 5hrs 16mins 01secs, 2 Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) Team Arkea-Samsic, 3 Pascal Ackermann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, 4 Phil Bauhaus (Ger) Bahrain Victorious, 5 Giacomo Nizzolo (Ita) Team Qhubeka Assos, 6 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) UAE Team Emirates, 7 Bryan Coquard (Fra) B&B Hotels p/b KTM, 8 Christophe Laporte (Fra) Cofidis, 9 Rudy Barbier (Fra) Israel Start-up Nation, 10 Danny van Poppel (Ned) Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert Materiaux at same time
Leading General Classification after Stage 5: 1 Primoz Roglic (Slo) Jumbo-Visma 18hrs 42mins 41secs, 2 Maximilian Schachmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe at 31secs, 3 Brandon McNulty (USA) UAE Team Emirates at 37secs, 4 Ion Izagirre Insausti (Esp) Astana-Premier Tech at 40secs, 5 Aleksandr Vlasov (Rus) Astana-Premier Tech at 41secs, 6 Matteo Jorgenson (USA) Movistar Team at 58secs, 7 Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Team DSM at 1min 04secs, 8 Lucas Hamilton (Aus) Team BikeExchange at 1min 08secs, 9 Luis Leon Sanchez (Esp) Astana-Premier Tech at 1min 11secs, 10 Pierre Latour (Fra) Total Direct Energie at 1min 12secs
Selected: 103 Sam Bennett (Irl) at 19mins 59secs