Sam Bennett: ‘I still feel like I lost out on a few years – still playing catch-up’
Cyclist reflects on a year of lockdown and taking the Tour de France green jersey
Team Deceuninck rider, Ireland’s Sam Bennett, wearing the best sprinter’s green jersey on September 18th, 2020. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images
Sam Bennett is sitting in the family home in Carrick-on-Suir and talking me through some of his steps since the last time he was here. Which was back in April, when he was home from Monaco during the first lockdown and like everyone else limited to exercising within a 2km radius.
Fortunately for him that took in most of the steep 2km climb that is the Seskin Hill, which ramps almost straight up after turning right from outside their riverside mews, the repeat sessions on which served him well five months later, when he went about winning two stages and the green jersey in the Tour de France.
Bennett is a little less restricted this time, and even if this is his first properly relaxing break at home after what feels like not just one but two hard seasons on the go he’s hardly plonking himself on the couch all day, is he?
“Ah, no,” he says. “I’m still doing 25 to 30 hours of training a week, but if I get it done early enough, I have the rest of the day for that.”
It has been a long year in a multitude of ways, and for Bennett the biggest deal at the beginning of it was the completion of the transfer from Bora-Hansgrohe to his own self-proclaimed dream team Deceuninck-QuickStep.
“Yeah, that should have been done around June, July of last year, and instead it dragged on to December. With all those contract negotiations going on, I didn’t really get a mental switch off at all, last season. I only took two weeks off, so it feels like I’ve been going two years, really, without a break.
“This year, I started with the Tour Down Under, which is pretty early, then when the pandemic first started, I only took a week off, because we never knew when we’d be racing again. Then riding two Grand Tours, it kept me going until the middle of November. So it’s been the longest year I’ve ever had, probably the hardest two years of my career as well. But I can’t complain. It turned out pretty good in the end.”
It started out good too, Bennett winning the opening stage of that Tour Down Under, and also the Race Torquay, in Victoria, before the entire cycling season came to a sudden halt in the middle of March. Bennett’s only hope then was that someday it would start again: it wasn’t just his legs being tested on the Seskin.
“No one really knew for sure, but because of its place in the whole structure of cycling, we knew the Tour de France had to happen, to keep all the sponsors happy, just to keep the sport going another year.
“For me, personally, I did find it difficult. You’re always trying to build towards a base, you always have a target, and it was very hard to manage a peak. One of my mates, from another team, took two months off, and still had enough time to get going again. And maybe I should have done that, for the head anyway it would have been better.”
I was going in as one of the favourites to win a stage, but the only one who hadn’t won a stage there before.
When racing did resume, Bennett promptly showed form again, winning a stage in the Vuelta a Burgos and the Tour de Wallonie. Confidence must have been riding high when the Tour de France rolled out of Nice on August 29th.
“I actually didn’t feel I had the same legs as last year, until maybe Stage 19 on the Tour. I still managed to get those wins, but that was more from the team being so strong around me, and just that experience of knowing how to win.
“But I didn’t actually feel at my best until I really rode myself into form during the Tour. The form wasn’t bad, but at the start of the year, I was fast, but just missing a little on the endurance side of things. In the end I had so much racing I kind of just rode myself into form, but that’s something I’ll need to keep on top of, next season.”
There was by his own admission the extra pressure of riding for Deceuninck-Quick-Step, once liberated from Bora-Hansgrohe: “It was a big step, because in a team like Deceuninck-Quick-Step, they expect you to win. And all their sprinters that have gone through there have always delivered in the Tour de France. I was going in as one of the favourites to win a stage, but the only one who hadn’t won a stage there before.
“Also in previous years there were other riders who were more the point of reference, going into the bunch sprint. This year, I was the point of reference for the others, they were gauging their sprint off me, and my timing. And if I messed up at all there was always somebody there to take it from me, even with the best team, the best train, the best bike. But being that point of reference was a new experience, and took me a while to really manage, to learn how to deal with it.”
There is a scene in the Wolfpack Insider documentary, a strictly behind-the-scenes look at how the team coped with the various demands of the Tour, where Bennett is getting a leg massage the evening after his Stage 10 win at Île de Ré, and describing to someone on the phone his still utter disbelief.
“I think in that scene I was talking to me wife, Tara. It was more because I’d moved abroad when I was 18, and it was something I was chasing over the years, and there were times I thought I wouldn’t make it, with the injuries I had at the start of my career, all the setbacks. I always felt I was three or four years behind. So even though for sprinters, 30 is a bit late to be getting there, I still feel like I’m 26, just the way my career is progressing.
“But yeah it took me so many years, and then winning that stage, it just felt like all the pressure was off.”
By then he was also winning the race for the green jersey, a feat last achieved by an Irish rider in 1989, in Seán Kelly, with Bennett’s former team-mate and previous seven-time winner Peter Sagan from Slovakia doing his level best to deny him. In the end, in the words of his boss at Deceuninck-Quick-Step, Patrick Lefevere, Bennett was “unbreakable”.
“I definitely felt like I was riding more into form as the Tour went on. Even if it was one of the hardest Tours with all the mountain stages, I knew stage 19 was make or break, and if they couldn’t break me there, I’d be able to have it.
“So the confidence was definitely growing, and with the intermediate sprints too, it was kind of like practice, and I was getting better with the timing. When you’re behind your lead out man, you always have to know what he’s thinking, how his riding style is, and we got a feel for that, and I think got better at it.”
It never just came, and I know how hard it is for anyone else trying to make it
His victory on the Champs Élysées was a popular one on many levels, duly acknowledged by many of his sprinting rivals, which in an often cut-throat business is important to him.
“I think we spend so many hours racing with each other, because it’s an endurance sport. There are times too when you’re not flat out racing, and it’s best to have more friends than enemies. Sometimes in the bunch sprint, and I’m trying to pick the right word here, you have to be not so nice. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be nice the rest of the time.
“You try to be fair. It doesn’t always work out, but I think because I had so many setbacks, had to work so hard for it. It never just came, and I know how hard it is for anyone else trying to make it. So you just try not to be a dickhead.”
Just over four weeks after finishing the Tour, Bennett was starting the Vuelta a España, that slightly surprising decision initially a surprise to himself.
“I said it jokingly, during the Tour. Then after another week or two one of my team-mates said look at my race schedule, I saw I was in the Vuelta, and I almost fell over. It usually takes me two or three months to get over one Grand Tour, and yeah, in the end, that was really hard, mentally, because it was so late in the year. But it was a good learning experience, to see more of what my body could do.”
Bennett did win Stage 4, was relegated after winning Stage 9, and denied the win on the final stage into Madrid by the width of his front tyre.
“I just wasn’t myself that day. Even during the stage I was cramping in places I never cramp before, like in my foot, my calf, my back muscles. Something wasn’t right that day. But I was so disappointed, you don’t hear of many riders who have won the last stages in the Giro, the Tour, and the Vuelta. And I’ve been second in Madrid twice now.”
Then it was his longest year, Bennett’s 69 days of racing, covering 11,269km, the most of any Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider except Michael Morkov, who raced 70, and covered 11,828km. He reckons he covered close to 30,000km in 2020 all in, and is affording himself a slightly later start to the new season.
“The plan is maybe the end of February, at the UAE Tour, then Milan San Remo is a big one, I know Seán Kelly has won a few times. It’s probably the biggest monument that sprinters have a chance to win, and that’s one I’d really like, and will try to have an early season peak for that.
“Then a mini off season, and build again for the Tour. It won’t be long coming around, and having more sprint opportunities at the Tour would be amazing. The green jersey is always a hard one, and it depends on how goes for it, but I’ll certainly give it a go, and would like to get more stage wins also.
“I still feel like I lost out on a few years, am still playing catch-up, so definitely still motivated to do a lot more, win a lot more races. I’m in the best place now to do that, will get all the best opportunities, and I do feel like I’m going into my best years now, and I want to make the most of them while I can.
“With the training camps, in January, we’re not sure they’ll still be happening, if the Covid cases still go up. But once we start racing it’s half the year on the go, really.”
And not knowing when he’ll get home to Carrick-on-Suir again, where many of the shops and businesses are still decorated with his images that read “Allez Sam Bennett”, and where in 2020 his success in the biggest bike race in the world felt like a kind of magic against any hard times in the country town of just under 6,000 people.
“That’s the one disappointment, that I didn’t come home just after, looking back now I should have. With the team though, I had to stay at it, but that’s one regret, definitely.”
Which after the year Bennett has had still leaves nothing to make up for.