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Vuelta a Espana

The enigma of Sam Bennett: Loveable bawler or bullyboy brawler?

Irishman's brash moves may toe the line, but the sprinter's growing love-or-loathe reputation ripens the sport.

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At the start of the season, Sam Bennett was the shoulder-barging bully boy of Paris-Nice.

At the Tour de France, he was an emotive, affable green jersey darling.

Six weeks later, the Deceuninck-Quick-Step sprinter rewound the clocks to March, when he was fined for throwing a shoulder into featherweight Colombian Nairo Quintana on stage three of the French one-weeker.

Bennett was relegated having crossed the line first at the Vuelta a España on Thursday after UCI officials penalized the 30-year-old for a pair of shoulder barges on Trek-Segafredo’s Emīls Liepinš.

However, there’s more to Bennett that playground bullying and weight-throwing machismo. Who could forget the Irishman’s tearful debut victory at this summer’s Tour and the emotional interview that launched him into the hearts and minds of fans around the world?

Bennett’s emotional response to winning stage 10 of the Tour launched him into the world’s hearts. Photo: Frank Faugere – Pool/Getty Images

Bennett has spun a pro career that oozes battling underdog. He raced through his debut Tour with Pro Conti squad Bora-Argon 18 nursing a hernia, abandoning at stage 16. The year after, he crashed hard on the opening stage of the French tour, mangled his hand, and rode to Paris, dead last. And then, when Bennett was awarded his big break with a deal at WorldTour giants Bora-Hansgrohe, he was left on the bench for three straight-years, missing the race he so yearned to return to as the team chased Tour de France sprints with Peter Sagan.

But the years of grinding away were rewarded with a move to Deceuninck-Quick-Step and with it, victories at Tour Down Under, the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España, and a redemptive green jersey over the very man that kept him away from the Tour for so many seasons, Peter Sagan. The stage 10 tears were a rare example of a pro cycling bearing their soul on the world’s biggest stage.

However, with the move to the Deceuninck-Quick-Step “Wolf Pack” comes the pressure to succeed at the boy’s club stage-winning machine, and perhaps a hint of the brash machismo that comes with riding for the brawny Belgian rouleurs.

Bennett rationalized his barges on Trek-Segafredo’s Latvian fast man as self-defense Thursday.

“I had to come from behind at speed,” Bennett said. “It was a big fight, we had some guys nearly put us in the barriers trying to take the wheel which was a bit sketchy but we stayed upright.”

Some suggested that it was Bennett asserting his place at the top of the grand tour sprinter’s ladder over a “second-tier” candidate, with Liepinš sitting way down the pecking order.

The Irishman’s ever-vocal lead wolf, Patrick Lefevere, added fuel to the speculation that his sprinter was putting the “lowly” Latvian back in his place for getting in the way during a heated social media beef with Trek-Segafredo sports direct Luca Guercilena.

How many sprints [has] he won, Luca Guercilena?,” Lefevere asked after Thursday’s finale in Aguilar de Campoo. 

Whatever your take — Sam Bennett as heart-warming, soul-bearing softie, or Sam Bennett as swaggering “Wolf” willing to bully others back into line — the Irishman is just another in the line of enigmatic sprinters; Mark Cavendish as weeping monument-winner and brittle tantrum-thrower, Peter Sagan as whacky wheelie-thrower and cautionless shoulder-barger.

I’m not condoning or excusing Bennett’s move on Quintana in March nor his battery on Liepinš on Thursday. However, the Irishman’s commitment to winning at whatever cost, and his utter delight when he achieves it, just mark him as another of the great love-or-loathe confusing characters that ripen the sport.

In the COVID age of team-controlled, sponsor-friendly interviews and media access, the more soul-bearing the better.