Sam Bennett’s talent shines through in Italian sunshine

Carrick-on-Suir rider has taken three stages of Giro d’Italia - an Irish record

Ireland’s Sam Bennett celebrates winning  the final  stage of the  Giro d’Italia in Rome on May 27th. Photograph: Luk Benies/AFP/Getty Images

Ireland’s Sam Bennett celebrates winning the final stage of the Giro d’Italia in Rome on May 27th. Photograph: Luk Benies/AFP/Getty Images

 

Rome’s Colosseum behind him, the final finish line of the Giro d’Italia in front, Sam Bennett hurtles forward, throws his right arm in the air and then, roughly 200m after the finish, unclips his left foot and skids his rear wheel around 180 degrees.

The rider behind him is startled, doesn’t expect the move and almost runs into the Irishman. The pivot is more out of BMX than road cycling, but Bennett has good reason for exuberance. He’s just finished the Giro d’Italia with his third stage victory and completed a significant breakthrough in his career.

Later that evening, his Bora-hansgrohe team celebrates. Bennett should be exhausted after three weeks and 3,572 km of racing, but after the partying he is too hyper, too excited to sleep. He will stay awake for another two hours with his fiancée Tara Fogarty, analysing the Giro d’Italia, reliving the big moments.

It’s very late when he finally puts head to pillow, but he’s happy. He’s succeeded.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” a sleepy-sounding Bennett tells The Irish Times on Monday, one day after the end of the race. “I definitely think that if I didn’t get the result I did yesterday, because I’m so hard on myself, I probably wouldn’t have looked back and enjoyed what I had gotten out of the Giro. Especially, I suppose, with the sprinter’s mentality. You want to go, and you want to dominate, and you want to be the best one there.”

Promising signs

Bennett has long been regarded as a hugely talented rider, but this May was the moment when he really confirmed all the promising signs before. When he was 17 he won the European junior points race on the track; when he was 18 he took a stage of the Rás Tailteann, becoming one of the youngest ever stage winners in the race.

And when he was 22 he won a stage of the 2013 Tour of Britain, beating riders such as Nairo Quintana and the 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins at the end of the hilly stage to Caerphilly. That led to a pro contract with the NetApp Endura team, which has since morphed into his current Bora-hansgrohe squad.

Much like Bennett’s sprint career, the team has evolved into being one of the best in professional cycling. It includes the current world champion Peter Sagan, one of the most famous riders in cycling. But now, thanks to his Giro d’Italia campaign, Bennett is also a household name in the sport.

Bennett had ridden three Grand Tours, cycling’s three-week races, before this year’s Giro. His first was the 2015 Tour de France, but illness beforehand and sickness during led to him performing well below his capacities. He returned the following season and crashed heavily on the opening stage, breaking a bone in his finger, cutting his hand to the bone and suffering other injuries which led him to limp all the way to Paris.

Five wins

Last year’s Giro d’Italia was better. He again fell sick, and again didn’t ride to his full ability, but nevertheless clocked up one second place and three thirds. He finished the season off with a superb five wins in 11 days.

Heading into the winter with renewed self-belief, Bennett worked hard towards the Giro d’Italia.

“I was confident because I had some great training done,” he says. “For five weeks I was doing three-day blocks with 15 to 17 hours on the bike. And my body just reacted super to the training. It absorbed all the training, it loved it, it just got better.

“I spent all winter trying to increase the power in the sprint and nothing really happened. Then we went back and said, ‘right, let’s just build as much endurance and strength as possible’. And then I ended up increasing massively in my sprint, for some reason, even though I didn’t do any sprint work. I don’t understand it. Anyway, it happened. I got quicker, I got stronger, I was getting over climbs.”

Analysis by his team coaches have pinpointed that he is far from a pure sprinter – something which was always likely, with that Tour of Britain stage win in 2013, and also with his sub-70 kilo racing weight – and that he derives a greater proportion of his speed from the aerobic side of things than pure gallopers such as Marcel Kittel.

It means he would be unlikely to win a track sprint against such riders, but, with road-racing taking place on all sorts of terrain, his versatility is an asset rather than a penalty. And so it proved in the Giro.

Uphill finish

Early on Bennett went close in the sprints. He was third on stages two and three, finishing just behind the stage winner Elia Viviani despite not being as well positioned as the sprints unfolded.

He impressed on stage four, being the only sprinter left in the hunt on the tough uphill finish to Caltagirone. And while he cracked with 200m to go and slipped back to 44th, he had given a clear signal of his intent and his form.

Three days later he got everything right. He tracked Viviani throughout the finale, and although the Italian and his team held far back, trying to entice Bennett to panic, to move forward and thus give Viviani a tactical advantage, the Irishman resisted.

“I was thinking, okay, if they are willing to lose this, then I am going to have to be willing to lose it as well. So I waited and waited, and then eventually they gave in and they went. I was on their wheel.

“And then when it was time to open up, I opened up. There was this slight moment where no ground was being made, and then I could see Viviani’s legs starting to give. Then I started to make ground really, really quick in the last 50m.

“When I got it I couldn’t believe it. I was screaming, I got a sore throat and everything. Okay, maybe the celebration was a bit all over the top…but the relief, man. I couldn’t believe it.”

Big scalp

Viviani has been this season’s most successful sprinter, and beating him was a big scalp. But the win meant more than just that. Bennett’s victory was the first Irish stage success in the Giro d’Italia in 31 years.

Then when he won stage 12 with an audacious early jump, he equalled Stephen Roche’s Irish record of two stage wins in a single Giro d’Italia.

And when he won Sunday’s final stage in Rome, Bennett became the most successful Irish stage-hunter ever in the history of the Giro.

And yet his ambition leaves him still a little dissatisfied. Viviani has been the most successful sprinter this season, winning a total of 10 races. Bennett showed he was the faster rider in the Giro, but Viviani’s team often put him in a better position and so he hit the line first on four days.

“The worst thing was that I knew I was quicker,” Bennett reflects. “If I was coming off his wheel and I was blowing up, if I couldn’t make up any ground on him, I would probably have said, ‘okay, fair enough, he is the fastest one here.’

“But because I was coming with such speed I knew it was just about positioning. When I could get Viviani’s wheel [in the leadup to the sprint] it was fine, but his team were pushing him in the final, they were blocking me, they were braking in front of me. I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Blasting off Viviani’s wheel on the final stage in Rome – beating him in his country’s own capital – underlined how quick Bennett was, but his natural competitiveness sees him look at the stage win tally and feel a little regret.

“I lost four-three to him. That sticks in my head,” he says with a laugh. More motivation for next time.

On the up

Bennett is two years younger than Viviani, and is very much on the up. It’s perfectly conceivable that he could become the sport’s best sprinter, but his goal of stage wins in the Tour de France will have to wait. Bora-hansgrohe will go with world champion Sagan as their sprinter in this year’s race – that’s natural given Sagan’s previous success there.

At this time Bennett isn’t listed to ride cycling’s third Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España. Unless that changes the Giro will be his sole three-week race this year. However, there are plenty of other events where he will fight for victories and continue his progression.

He will do the Rund um Koln on June 10th and then compete in the Irish road-race championships in Sligo on July 1st. Winning and wearing the national champion’s distinctive jersey is a major target for him.

“I know the national champs is a lottery, especially for me as nobody wants to bring a sprinter to the line,” he says. “But it would be a dream to represent the Irish national jersey in bunch sprints, Grand Tours and in big races. To try to win with that on my back.

“I am definitely targeting that this year. I think if any Irish rider says he doesn’t want it, they are lying. Everybody wants that jersey. I don’t think I am different to any other guy.”

Born in Belgium to Irish parents, Bennett is proud of his nationality. That’s why winning races while wearing the white and green jersey would be a huge motivation for him. “I want that on my back when I am doing big sprints.”

Who is Sam Bennett?

Bennett was born in Wervik, Belgium, on October 16th, 1990, his parents having moved to the country due to his father’s professional football career. They travelled back to Ireland, and Bennett grew up in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, the same hometown as Sean Kelly. He raced on Kelly’s An Post team for several seasons then turned pro in 2014.

He is just 27 years of age, but has already notched up 25 professional wins. Despite that, he remains down to earth. “I want to stay that way. I’ve seen with a few people that even just going over to Monaco can get to their head and it can affect their outlook on life and cycling as well.

“I just want to say focused, I want to stay hard working. In one way I want people to still like me, to be able to relate to me. To show that the kid from Carrick can always make it. I still don’t think I have made it, I think I have more to do. I don’t want people to ever think that I am arrogant.”

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