Sam Bennett puts new season and shoe to the pedal in UAE Tour

The Irish cyclist will start his first race of 2021 at the UAE Tour, beginning on Sunday

Three and a half months after finishing his memorable 2020 season Sam Bennett will start his first race of 2021 at the UAE Tour this weekend. File photograph: Getty Images

New season, fresh goals, some old rivals and in his quest to put pedal to the metal again this year Sam Bennett isn't just relying on things like the wheels on his bike but also the shoes on his feet. In part because unlike the wheel the cycling technology likes to keep reinventing itself.

Three and a half months after finishing his memorable 2020 season in the Vuelta a España, denied a final stage win in Madrid by the width of his front tyre, Bennett will start his first race of 2021 at the UAE Tour, beginning on Sunday with a suitably flat stage into Al Mirfa almost certain to fancy the pure sprinters such as himself.

The seven-day 1,044km race, a merger of the former Dubai Tour and Abu Dhabi Tour since 2018, does feature two mountain finishes midweek, plus a time trial, although Bennett is well familiar with the hot terrain: he won the final stage in 2019 into Dubai Safari Park, also finishing fourth on Stage 5 that year.

It’s also the first stop on the 2021 UCI World Tour - the traditional opener, the Santos Tour Down Under, cancelled because of Covid-19, as was the Vuelta a San Juan, the week-long race in Argentina favoured as an early test for many team leaders. As a result the UAE Tour has attracted an all-star cast of riders and especially the sprint specialists.


For Bennett there is plenty of motivation beyond the quality of his opposition: now in his second season with Deceuninck-QuickStep, that photo-finish defeat in the final stage of Vuelta, won by his former team mate Pascal Ackermann of Bora-Hansgrohe, also denied him what would have been his 50th win as a professional, the first of which came with a single win back in 2013 in Stage 5 the Tour of Britain.

The Irish rider has been racking up the professional wins every year since - three in 2014, five in 2015, three in 2016, 10 in 2017, seven in 2018, 13 in 2019 and seven in 2020, including two in the Tour de France. In all Bennett, had 20 top-10 finishes last year, and the UAE Tour presents four stages that the sprinters will fancy.

Most of the big sprint names will be there: along with Ackermann, Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka Assos), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), recent cyclo-cross World champion Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) is also likely to be in the mix.


So to the shoes on his feet: Bennett worked closely with team sponsor Specialized in developing a new cycling shoe for 2021, the S-Works Ares (named after the Greek god of war), which somewhat boldly claim to offer a 7-watt increase in power to the pedals, worth a speed increase of 14 seconds over 10km.

Bennett is described by Specialized designer Rob Cook 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.

The new shoe replaces the traditional upper tongue with a pliable sock-like design. “I would just ask him things like, when do you tighten shoes in a race?” Cook said in a recent interview describing the shoe technology. “And Sam would say, ‘In a normal race, at 5k out. At the Giro, 15k. And at the Tour, it’s 25-50k out. Because if you wait longer than that, if you stop pedalling for a few seconds when everyone is full gas, you’re 20-30 places back in a few seconds. So he needed a shoe that he could race at full tension for 50km and not have his feet fall asleep or feel cramped.”

Faster or not, the new shoe will get a proper test run in the UAE Tour. Last year, the race marked the first end of the beginning of the 2020 season, abandoned before the final two stages because of Covid-19, at which point Adam Yates was declared the winner.

The hope is the 2021 race will mark the beginning of a full season, Yates, now riding with Ineos Grenadiers, back to defend his title, while Chris Froome makes his first start in the colours of Israel Start-Up Nation, leaving Ineos Grenadiers in the biggest transfer of 2020. Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar, still only 21, of local UAE Team Emirates will also start, after finishing second last year.

After a recent bout of illness, Dan Martin will also have his first race of 2021 at the three-day Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, beginning on Friday. The Irish rider is in his second season with Israel Start-Up Nation, finishing last year with a fourth place finish at the Vuelta.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics