There’s a small bit of historical parallel about the season, something Sam Bennett will hope bodes well.
Two years ago at this same time he was finalizing his preparation for a Tour de France delayed by COVID-19. He went on to take two stage wins there plus the green jersey.
Now there’s another grand tour on the horizon, a Vuelta a España where he is hoping to have another big showing.
Bennett is frank about what needs to happen, either at the Spanish tour or elsewhere.
“I am definitely motivated for wins,” he told VeloNews in recent days, “because I desperately need them.”
The Irishman is emerging from the most subdued period of his professional career. He has clocked up just one victory in the past 15 months, far less than before, due principally to a knee problem he suffered in June 2021.
Although that injury has healed, it had far-reaching effects he didn’t anticipate at the time. It ruled him out of the 2021 Tour de France and all bar four days of competition for the rest of the year. It put him on the back foot in relation to his form for 2022, and consequently victory in Eschborn-Frankfurt is the only podium-topping success he has had to date.
That in turn was an influence on Bora-Hansgrohe not selecting him for its Tour de France team, something which seemed unthinkable when he rejoined the squad this year.
Bennett wants to turn things around as soon as possible. In fact, as he says himself, he needs to turn things around as soon as possible.
Speaking prior to the start of the Tour of Poland, he identified chances there and at the European road race championships.
“There are three opportunities here [in Poland]. So I definitely would like a win here,” he said. “And the Europeans…victory is quite possible. If the form is good, it could be a great thing.
“I will have Ryan [Mullen, one of his Bora-Hansgrohe leadout riders] in the Europeans. I think we have a strong team in general for the Euros. So we just have to play it smart.
“They are definitely races where we’d like to get good results. There’s no reason not to get results there, they’re all races that should suit us.”
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With his confidence yet to return to where it was, Bennett has learned that a number of factors need to be right to win.
One aspect he said could complicate things is the lack of racing, both for himself and for others in his leadout train. Prior to Poland, they hadn’t worked together as a unit since the Baloise Belgium Tour.
And with Danny van Poppel missing from the Poland after riding the Tour de France, it makes things a little more tricky again.
A good sprint is all about speed, sure, but placing in the bunch and being dropped off in exactly the right place is vital.
It can take time to get that synchronization down and for everything to flow. Indeed that seemed to be the case on the opening day in Poland, when Bennett got separated from leadout man Jordi Meeus in a chaotic final kilometer.
Meeus was looking back for Bennett close to the line and ended up sprinting himself, taking third. Bennett had a much more tricky final run to the line and was back in 14th.
Stage 2 looked much closer; he finished fifth, but made up so much ground inside the final few seconds that it looked like he could have won had the line been a few meters further away.
Still, he said afterwards that his legs weren’t quite right.
He hoped to get things right on Wednesday’s fifth stage but again things didn’t click. This time around a crash inside the final kilometer completely messed up plans, with only eight riders making it through and going on to contest the sprint. Bennett was one of those who came down, but fortunately was not badly injured.
He and the team will keep trying, knowing that once he lands a win everything will—hopefully—click right back into place.
Sprinters thrive on confidence and flourish with momentum.
And success should breed success.
“I don’t blame anyone … I have to understand the goals of the team”
One of the most surprising aspects of a 20 minute chat with Bennett was his acceptance of the situation with the Tour de France.
He was undoubtedly hugely disappointed not to be selected for the race. Both himself and Mullen missed the Irish road race championships in the expectation that they would be heading to France. But, days before the start in Copenhagen Bora-Hansgrohe released its selection.
No Bennett. No Mullen. No sprint focus for the team, but rather a general classification challenge with Aleksandr Vlasov.
Several weeks have passed since then and Bennett has had time to mull over things, to process his thoughts and to come to terms with that decision.
It would be a stretch to say he’s happy about it, but he has accepted it.
“I think like any sprinter you’re disappointed, but that’s not my decision,” he said, asked how he felt at the time he got the news. “It is a weird one when you have an idea in your head what’s happening and then the complete opposite happens. But on to the next things, I suppose.”
Bennett spoke slowly, carefully, thinking about the best way to phrase things. He doesn’t want to say anything that might come across as a criticism of the team. Indeed he insisted that he can see things from the perspective of those who decided the team’s approach.
“I don’t blame anybody for any decisions,” he said. “I have to understand the goals of the team and what they were looking for out of the race, too.”
His coach Dan Lorang previously told VeloNews that a stage win in the Baloise Belgium Tour would have made it more likely that he would have been at the Tour. Lorang had said several times that he believed Bennett would be back to his best form in time for the Tour.
But when Bennett’s highest-placed finish in Belgium ended up being fourth on the final stage, he admitted that it created question marks.
For his part, Bennett believes his form would have been where it needed to be had he started the Tour.
“I think it would have been good enough. I had the endurance. I think maybe the last sprint I did in the Belgium Tour was read into too much,” he said. “It was a very difficult run in. And I was going first into a headwind, like a block headwind.
“Basically, I ended up just launching Philipsen and Jakobsen. So then I looked like I was sprinting quite poorly, but it doesn’t show the performance I was doing. The results there didn’t show it.
“If I was told that the result in Belgium was going to be a decider in the Tour I would have approached it differently. But the Tour was the goal.
“Obviously the Tour would never be easy and it would definitely be a hard one to go back to after two years. But at the end of the day, that was the goal.”
Moving forward with determination and hope
In the end, Bora-Hansgrohe’s decision to back Vlasov was, in the words of the team, not quite a success. He and they were targeting a podium finish; he ultimately finished fifth in Paris.
The team also missed out on a stage win, going close with Lennard Kämna on stage 7 to La Planche des Belles Filles. He was caught inside the final 200 meters and finished fourth. The German rider also had a near miss with regards the yellow jersey, coming up just 11 seconds short on stage 10.
It wasn’t a poor Tour, by any means. Bora-Hansgrohe was very visible, and finished a strong fifth out of 22 teams in the prize standings. With a bit more luck things could have paid off even more, and Vlasov and Kämna did amass experience which will be invaluable for the future.
Weighing things up now in the weeks after that race, it’s impossible to know how Bennett would have fared. There were limited opportunities for sprinters in the Tour but had things gone right, he may have given Bora-Hansgrohe the stage win it was missing.
But, again, it’s impossible to know.
All he can do is to look forward, move on, get himself back up to speed and winning again.
But on that note, does he have any concerns that Bora-Hansgrohe’s declared future GC focus could complicate things for a sprinter and his leadout train?
“I don’t know,” he answers. “You see Jumbo. They can do two things, often teams do two things. I don’t see how it can be too hard to balance both. But you can’t argue when the first time they went fully for GC they win a Grand Tour [with Jai Hindley in the Giro – ed.].
“I don’t know. We’ll see in the future if it makes it difficult or not.”
One way to be sure of his place is to get back to winning again. If he’s in strong form, wouldn’t that make it hard for the team not to take him to races like the Tour?
“Yeah, hopefully,” he says in reply.
‘I expected the start of the year to go differently’
With a time trial on Thursday, Bennett will try again for sprint success on Friday’s final stage in Poland. He’ll hope for a strong showing in the European championships, and he’ll keep fingers crossed that he will be part of the team’s selection for the Vuelta a España.
“We just have to see how the next races go,” he said. “See if the results come our way and get the selection. Depending on what the team wants for the race, are they looking more GC, are they looking more for stage victories? We will have to see.”
Bennett wants to be there for a multitude of reasons. These include winning, of course, the chance to add to his three Vuelta stage victories. They will include feeling like a fully-involved, fully-engaged part of the team.
And getting a three week race into his legs will be important for his 2023 season too, not least because of his relative lack of racing over the past 15 months.
“It’s important to get that strength in depth,” he reasons. “It is nearly two years without a Grand Tour now, so it’s quite a long time.”
What’s vital now is to get back into the groove.
He’s a rider who is used to winning, and the events of the past 15 months will have been equally frustrating and demoralizing for him.
All he can do is keep working hard. If he can keep his head up and continue putting in the effort, things will surely come right sooner or later.
As the old saying goes, form is temporary, class is permanent. He’s still the rider who won the green jersey in the 2020 Tour, after all.
Looking back, with the wisdom of hindsight, he now says he’d have done things in a different way this season.
“I think I expected the start of the year to go differently. But maybe I just started racing too early,” he said. “I think maybe I should just have held off until Turkey, and started racing then.
“Because … Turkey, I thought I would be winning again, but it wasn’t for a week or two after. And then that didn’t really happen in Belgium after that again.
“So I’m definitely motivated for wins, because really do need them.
“I just have to get everything to click.”