Vuelta a Espana

Vuelta a España: Sam Bennett makes most of few opportunities for sprinters

With another hilly stage on tap Saturday, Sam Bennett wanted to win early in mountainous Vuelta a España.

It was a rare flat day in what’s a mountainous edition of the Vuelta a España, and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) didn’t want to let the opportunity slip by.

With maybe four sprint stages in this abbreviated, 18-stage Vuelta, Bennett uncorked a well-timed late sprint to nip Jasper Philipsen (UAE-Emirates) to pick up where he left off at the Tour de France last month.

“I went for the outside and Philipsen came up the inside and got such a jump I actually didn’t think I was going to be able to catch him,” Bennett said. “I found the speed I needed, and in the end, I managed to overtake him and take my first win since Champs-Élysées, which feels amazing.”

The 30-year-old enjoyed a breakout Tour, winning twice, including on the Champs-Élysées, and defrocked Peter Sagan of the green points jersey.

Rather than hang up the cleats for 2020, Bennett came to the Vuelta to close out what’s been a season interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Though there are no many chances for sprinters in this Vuelta, Bennett decided to race here rather than to head to the sprinter-friendly one-days in Belgium to close out the year.

“I think there will be only three sprints in this Vuelta, and that puts pressure on us,” Bennett said. “If I hadn’t won today, I would have had even more pressure in the next sprints.”

His victory Friday in the 191km mostly flat run from Garray to Ejea de los Caballeros makes it two in a row for Irish riders at the Vuelta. Compatriot Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) won Thursday’s third stage, and the skinny climber is ahead of Bennett in the points competition after the first four days, a testament to how mountainous the start of this Vuelta has been so far.

Though the GC riders had a bit of respite Friday, it didn’t mean the stage wasn’t without its tension. Gusting winds pushed and pulled the bunch as it looped across the wide-open plains of Spain’s northern meseta. There was a threat of splits in the bunch, and riders were stacked shoulder-to-shoulder across the road as the packed reeled in a breakaway to set up the sprint.

Pre-stage favorite Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) could only muster fourth, while Jakub Mareczko (CCC Team) squeaked through for third. Philipsen jumped early after two tight corners in the final 500m, but Bennett had the jets to come around for the victory.

“It went really well. The boys did an amazing job in the final just as we had planned,” Philipsen said. “The whole time I was in pole position to take the win and with 50 meters to go, I felt I had it.” Bennett came from behind with a lot of speed. “I have no regrets about my sprint, we did as planned as it didn’t quite work out. I’m a little bit disappointed but it still gives me confidence for the other sprint stages.”

The GC contenders will have their radars turned on, Saturday, for the 184.4km fifth stage from Huesca to Sabiñanigo. The lumpy stage, with three rated climbs in the closing 75km, could be a good chance for a breakaway to stick. A steep wall at the end of the stage should provoke some sparks from the overall contenders ahead of Sunday’s altered stage to Formigal.