Vuelta a Espana
ALICANTE, SPAIN - AUGUST 26: Podium / Sam Bennett...

Irish take over Vuelta, at least for a day

In a race expected to be dominated by Colombians, the Irish pair of Roche and Bennett reminded everyone of the island's pedigree

In a Vuelta a España that seems destined to be dominated by Colombians, there was a different accent on the winner’s podium Monday.

The Irish took over — at least temporarily — with a pair of impressive performances that dominated Monday’s 188km third stage to Alicante.

Irish national champion Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) kicked to victory in the 2019 Vuelta’s first bunch sprint while compatriot Nicolas Roche (Sunweb) defended red. It was an ideal occasion to tip a Guinness.

“It’s a big thing for Irish cycling,” said Roche, who kept red after taking it Sunday. “[Bennett] wrote me last night and said, ‘now I got to win while you are in the red jersey. It’ll be great for Ireland.”

Monday’s rolling transition stage was one of the few days tailored for the fast men in the bunch in a climb-heavy Vuelta. After Colombians set the tone from start of the race, with Miguel Ángel López (Astana) taking red Saturday, and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) winning dramatically Sunday, all eyes were on Fernando Gaviria (UAE-Emirates) to keep the Colombian party going.

Gaviria, however, lost contact late in the stage over some closing hilly terrain, opening the door for Bennett to put the Irish stamp on the race.

“There don’t seem to be that many opportunities in this year’s Vuelta and if don’t get it this week, almost waiting until last week of the race,” said Bennett, winning in the Irish national jersey he won in June. “So it’s good to get the win in early.”

It was a special day for Irish cycling, a small nation that doesn’t see a lot of representation in the WorldTour, but has produced some of cycling’s most legendary names.

Irishman Nicolas Roche is still in the leader’s jersey. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

It’s no surprise that Colombians are expected to dominate this Vuelta. With the 2019 route packed with climbs, it’s possible the race could see a Colombian sweep of the top-3 podium spots.

Hillier terrain later this week, ahead of this weekend’s showdown in Andorra, will see the Colombians not straying too far from the fray.

In the meantime, the Irish riders wanted to soak up their moment in the Spanish sun.

The 28-year-old Bennett used Monday’s sprint to cap a coming-of-age period for the sprinter that began in 2018. After nipping at the edge of major success in the early years of his career, he struck gold in last year’s Giro d’Italia, winning three stages that seemed to kick him to a new level.

In 2019, he’s been one of the most consistent sprinters in the pack. He’s won 12 races this season, all of them at the WorldTour-level except his national title in June and a stage at the Vuelta a San Juan to open the season. After being overlooked for the Giro and Tour de France, he didn’t want to let Monday’s opportunity slip away.

“It’s great to get another grand tour win and especially in the Irish champion’s jersey,” he said. “The red jersey and the stage win, it’s a huge day for Irish cycling.”

Just as Bennett’s win seemed to reconfirm his arrival, Roche’s run in red is a reminder that he’s been here all along.

Now 35, Roche has been a WorldTour staple since 2005. The son of Irish legend Stephen Roche, he’s never quite reached the spectacular heights as his father, but he’s had a long and very successful career nonetheless. After stints at Sky, Saxo Bank and BMC Racing, as move to Sunweb this season sees Roche looking very fit and motivated coming into this Vuelta.

“I love the heat and racing in the Vuelta,” Roche said. “This is always one of my favorite races of the year, and I’m always very motivated for the Vuelta. I’ll fight to keep the jersey as long as I can.”

Roche is also a two-time national Irish champion, so he knows how special it is to wear the unique national jersey.

Irish cycling has a long pedigree in the Vuelta, capped by Sean Kelly’s overall victory in 1988, just as he and Stephen Roche were dominating international cycling. No Irishman has won a grand tour since those glory days, but Irish cycling continues to produce quality.

On Monday, Bennett became the sixth Irish rider to win a Vuelta stage. Others include Nico Roche, Dan Martin, Phil Deignan, Shay Elliott, and Kelly.

“Hopefully it’ll generate more interest for the Irish fans and public,” Roche said. “It’s fantastic we have such a strong presence here.”

It remains to be seen how long the Irish will remain front and center in the Vuelta. With only two starters, they are out-numbered by the Colombians, who bring 11 to the race.

Roche admits he’s not going to be able to hang with the agile climbers in the second half of the Vuelta, but with Tuesday’s transition stage into El Puig tilted in favor of the sprinters, the Irish podium double might well be in the cards again.