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Bennett delivers for Wolfpack in first shot at sprint

Bennett eased pressure to bag opening win for new team after profiting from perfect leadout, now ready to hunt more victories.

TANUNDA, Australia (VN) — Two days ago, Sam Bennett said he didn’t want to become the first sprinter from Deceuninck-Quick-Step to leave the Tour Down Under empty-handed.

He won’t have to worry about that. The Irishman delivered a perfectly timed acceleration to nip Jasper Philipsen (UAE-Emirates) to open his account for his new bosses on the race’s opening stage, Tuesday.

“The team is the reason I won today,” Bennett said. “I felt the pressure because we wanted that first win. The guys did a great job and did a leadout perfectly.”

Last fall, Bennett moved across to Quick-Step after an off-season contract dispute to leave Bora-Hansgrohe. The transfer came packed with pressure, and he had some big shoes to fill vacated by Elia Viviani, who moved to Cofidis.

Ready to answer the pressure, the self-styled “Wolfpack” stepped up. Iljo Keisse, Shane Archbold and Michael Morkov drove Bennett to the line in textbook delivery in the fast, rolling sprint finish.

Philipsen looked to have the win in the bag after he jumped off Bennett’s wheel. The Irishman had to dig deep to find an extra gear to surge past in the final 50m.

“I’m not too happy because I thought I could have won today,” Philipsen said. “My team brought me in good position, right on the wheel of [Sam] Bennett. I jumped what I thought was a good moment, but it was a little too soon. Bennett caught me just in the final 30 meters. On Sunday [at the Classic Criterium], I was too late, so hopefully I can get it right.”

The opening sprint kicked off the first squirmish in what will be a season-long battle for sprint supremacy. With Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Bennett, Viviani and Philipsen among the top tier, everyone is pressing to notch early season wins, because everyone has something to prove.

All eyes were on Ewan, who won Sunday’s critérium in spectacular fashion, but he was languishing in the middle of the pack with less than 2km to go. By the time he could find some breathing room, the sprint was ramping up.

“We were a little too far back when the sprint started. We weren’t in the best position and it cost us. By the time I got my speed up, it was too late,” Ewan said. ”My legs feel good and I’m confident in my speed. I know that if the team can get me in good position, I’ll be able to win a stage this week.”

Viviani, too, was out of position as Cofidis looked to struggle to find space to move up its new star sprinter.

The six-day Tour Down Under should see two more chances for the sprinters. Wednesday’s stage into Stirling features a grinding rising finish, not ideal for the pure sprinters. Thursday is the Paracombe climb, so the pack’s speedsters might have to cool their jets until Friday and Saturday.

For Bennett, the season-opening victory couldn’t have come soon enough, and said he hopes to notch one more win before the week is out.

“I’m happy it came today. I did feel the pressure and it’s really nice to get the win early,” Bennett said. “I think the team has more confidence in me than I do myself. That gives me confidence as well to see how well they were working for me.”

The newest member of ‘the Wolfpack’ just delivered the team’s first win in 2020. That will only make them hungrier for more.