HARSTAD, Norway (VN) — Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) opened his account early in 2015 with a big sprint win in the hot desert climate at the Tour of Qatar, crossing the finish line ahead of the likes of Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), and several other impressive names. Now, he’s hoping to find some late-season success in a place that could hardly be more different from the Arabian Peninsula, among the fjords and evergreen forests at the Arctic Race of Norway.
A good start to his season, followed by a strong Bayern Rundfahrt in which he took two stage wins, put Bennett in prime position to lead his team’s campaign for Tour de France stage victories in his first grand tour start. But things turned sour quickly when he found himself at the back of the pack even in the first few stages. He did notch a top 10 on a stage (10th on stage 7 in Fougères), but it was all downhill from there, with illness forcing him out of the race.
“I went into it without the proper preparation, and so I was fighting a losing battle,” Bennett told VeloNews on the eve of the Arctic Race of Norway, noting that he’s finding it hard to look back on his first Tour experience in a positive light given the circumstances.
“If I came out of it somewhat healthy, it would have been good for the body to go that deep and to go that long, racing double the amount that I’ve ever raced before, that’s something new. It would have been something positive, but I pulled out when I was sick, having some other problems going on, and then about a week later I had to start a nine-day course of antibiotics.”
Bennett did come away from the Tour a bit more knowledgeable as a racer. For one, his power meter registered “sixteen days of information [he] had never gotten before.” Getting a better sense of his ability to cope with the rigors of riding at such a high level for so many days will likely be vital to his continued progression as well.
“You do learn a lot. I think I really learned to survive even more, which is something I needed to do, being a sprinter,” he said.
Now, over three weeks removed from his tough experience in France, Bennett is getting back to racing at the Arctic Race of Norway, where he was third behind Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Thor Hushovd on the final stage last year. He thinks he’s back to full health, though he’s not quite sure how to judge his form.
“The antibiotics just zapped me; I just feel really lazy now on the bike, like I’m going out and trying to hold watts and it’s really hard — but once I have to do top-end watts, it’s all there,” Bennett said. “I just can’t go along at 200 watts. So I’m hoping that I’m riding my way into this race. It should be out of my system now going on this week.
“I hope I can ride relatively comfortable so that I’m not going too deep so I can get a benefit from this race, and so if an opportunity comes around hopefully I can do something. But also it’s cold here; it’s raining and I don’t want to get sick again! I can’t afford that now.”
Bennett’s three wins in 2015 and a collection of high placings have made this season a fine continuation of his young career, but he’s not content with the way things have played out. Not yet at least.
“I don’t know, maybe I just focus on the down points too much, but I want more results, and I want more consistency,” Bennett said. “I always say ‘consistency is key,’ and I thought I had that this year. I had a good start and then I was good in May, but I couldn’t get it together before the Tour. Then I came out of the Tour sick.
“If I can finish the season strong, maybe get another two or three wins, I’d mark it as a success because I’d see there’s progress as well. Every year, I want to develop and step up a level. As of now, I feel like I’ve only equaled to what I did last year, so I don’t feel I’ve progressed, and that’s what I look for.”
August is always an odd time for the pro peloton, a part of the season in which some riders start winding down for the offseason, while others go all-out in a desperate scramble for late results to salvage a disappointing year.
“It’s a real division in the bunch now compared to earlier on in the year between guys who want it and guys who just kind of want to see out the year,” Bennett said. “But for me, come the end of the year, I always go on full attack and really try to get the most out of it. Last year, maybe I panicked a little bit too much and wanted too much again, and I got sick. So I’m trying to keep my cool but still get something out of it.”
The Arctic Race of Norway will indeed present opportunities for Bennett to get something else out of the waning season, as the first two stages could come down to big bunch sprints. As such, Bora-Argon 18 made the trip to the northern reaches of Norway with a team that will aim to set Bennett up for stage victories — but the 24-year-old Irishman knows it won’t be easy.
“You look at the profile, and it says it’s flat, but you go along the coast here and there’s no flat!” Bennett said. “There are all these little kickers, and you come to the end of the day and your legs are going to be torn off. It could be one of those things where you are going along for three hours feeling grand and then the next minute, ‘bang,’ your legs are gone, and you’re like, ‘What the hell is this?’ Also you have wind and cold weather on top of all that, so I think it’s going to be very, very hard racing.”
The field is also loaded with talent in the fast finisher department, which will make for tough competition, though as Bennett points out, in the chaos of a hectic sprint, sometimes it’s about more than just speed.
“There’s a lot of good sprinters,” he said. “[Bryan] Coquard, you saw how he finished in the last stage of the Tour [second to stage winner André Greipel], really, really impressive, and his confidence will be up for sure. And you have Kristoff. It’s not going to be easy. But the thing with sprinting is, you don’t know how it can go, and some days you can just be in the right place at the right time. So hopefully I’ll have a bit of luck.”
The Arctic Race of Norway should be an enjoyable return to competition after his hellish two weeks at the Tour de France and some time spent recovering from illness. Whether or not he’s able to mix it up with the best in the sprints as he was in the first half of the season, he’ll at least be able to enjoy the unique Arctic atmosphere.
“It is a beautiful place to race,” he said. “I just want to stay dry!”