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Vuelta a Espana

Commentary: Can Sam Bennett salvage his season at the Vuelta a España?

It’s a question of identity as the Irishman looks to ‘find himself’ and return to the top step of the podium.

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UTRECHT, Netherlands (VN) – The last time Sam Bennett rode a grand tour, he was the king of the bunch sprinting world.

At the 2020 Tour de France, racing for Quick-Step, he won two stages and finished as the green jersey winner. The Irishman added a Vuelta stage that autumn, for good measure.

Well, two years is an awful long time in pro cycling and as he lines up for the Vuelta a España, he is back as a pretender again.

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What followed the next season were shots fired in the press by his then-team manager Patrick Lefevere and a knee injury which meant he was absent from the Tour de France and returned to racing months later, sub-par.

Bennett switched teams before 2022, returning to the mother ship. Bora-Hansgrohe was the squad where he turned pro in 2014 and first tasted top-level sprint success.

He was happy to work again with coach Dan Lorang, who was a factor in his decision to move.

Fighting for race wins and Tour selection

However, it has been an indifferent season so far. The Irishman told VeloNews in an in-depth interview that he expected the start of the year to go differently. He has not won or been on the podium since taking victory at WorldTour race Eschborn-Frankfurt on May Day (below).

Battling for his best form, Bennett wasn’t selected in the Bora-Hansgrohe lineup for the Tour de France this summer either.

There are positive signs heading into the Vuelta, with recent fifth place finishes at European championships road race and a Tour of Poland stage.

Bennett’s only victory this year, at Eschborn-Frankfurt (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

“It would be really nice to get a stage here and really fight for the points jersey,” Bennett said in his pre-race press conference.

“It’s also an opportunity for me to really find my level again. I can see the form is coming. It’s pretty good at the minute.”

Seeking a stage win and his true self

However, this is not just about returning to his best condition or the podium in Spain; it’s about the 31-year-old rediscovering himself as a pro cyclist and a winner again.

A top fast man runs on confidence as well as momentum and a problem-free preparation, so no wonder Bennett has had a lot of fuel for doubt in past seasons.

“It’s been two years since my last grand tour and the time I missed over the last year, I kind of feel that. [I’ll try] just to find myself at this race and get those wins.”

“There is a bit of pressure to win a stage. I think, since 2018, whenever I did a grand tour, I’ve always won at least one,” he said. “So I’d like to keep that pattern. I suppose that’s more pressure for myself rather than external pressure.”

Vuelta sprint opportunities

His main sprint rivals are set to be Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates), with Ethan Hayter (Ineos Grenadiers), Kaden Groves (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Gerben Thijssen (Intermarché-Wanty Gobert-Matériaux) also posing a threat.

There appears to be six likely opportunities for bunch sprints. First up and flattest, there’s stages 2 and 3 in the Netherlands, finishing in Utrecht and Breda respectively.

The presence of leadout man Danny van Poppel in the Bora-Hansgrohe lineup might play into Bennett’s hands, with the slightest advantage of a Dutchman at home.

Stage 11 to Cabo de Gata is flat and looks set for a bunch finish, the same for stage 13 to Montilla, which has an uphill finale. Those are to his liking; both stages he won in 2019 contained rises in the final five kilometers.

Bennett, who “starts to struggle” above 40 degrees, will hope the heat is not extreme in Spain.

Stage 16 to Tomares has a tricky finale, containing a couple of punchy rises which might make it too tough for the sprinters.

Last but not least, the closer in Madrid on stage 21 is another assured sprinters’ opportunity.

If that stage victory does come, expect an explosion of relief and emotion after one of the most difficult spells in Sam Bennett’s career.