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Sean Bennett’s ‘biggest growth year’ hinged on Baby Giro win

American proved that 'there's always a possibility' for the break when he scored his first big win in stage 6 of the Baby Giro.

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For the second time in a week, Sean Bennett was off the front at the Baby Giro.

A short, lumpy stage 6 opened with “pissing rain,” but the clouds had broken by the time the 22-year-old American and three companions were powering into the finale in Pergine Valsugana. As the conditions became clearer on the road, so too did the fact that Bennett might have a real shot at a stage win in one of the world’s premier under-23 races.

“Everyone was working super well and there were two GC climber guys. I wasn’t super worried about them. [Robert] Stannard was the only guy that I was worried about,” the Hagens Berman Axeon rider says, talking to VeloNews by phone this week.

As the kilometers ticked down, Bennett’s team director Axel Merckx told him to take fewer pulls.

“I got to rest a little bit — and then everyone looked to me in the final,” Bennett says.

At the head of the group, as it rolled into the final kilometer, Bennett was in a tough position for the final sprint, but his freshness paid off. He kicked from a few hundred meters out and held off Stannard and the other two escapees to ensure that the top step of the podium would be all his that day in Italy.

Although the Baby Giro isn’t usually headline news in the world of pro cycling, Bennett’s stage win in mid-June was a crucial step in his fast development. Bennett expects to continue progressing in the coming season, but first, here is an inside look at that victory.

BENNETT’S 2018 SEASON got underway in February when he joined the Hagens Berman Axeon squad as a “last-minute thing.” A spot on the highly successful U.S.-based development team had opened up when Adrien Costa stepped away from the sport, and Bennett got the call to make the jump. He had ridden on Continental teams, such as Jelly Belly and CCB, but this was a step up to the Pro Continental ranks.

Bennett hit the ground running. Within a few weeks, he was out on the road in Europe, starting a block with few breaks from racing that would last all the way through June.

It did not take long for Bennett to put his talents on display. The spring saw him deliver top-10s in the Istrian Spring Trophy (a stage race in Croatia), the under-23 Gent-Wevelgem, the under-23 Tour of Flanders, and the Tour of the Gila before a promising Amgen Tour of California.

None of those strong rides actually put him atop the podium, however. He had proven that he was the sort of all-around talent that could be in the mix on a variety of terrains, but a win could put him on the map as an up-and-comer to watch on the American racing scene.

Consistency is a crucial selling point for a young rider looking to impress WorldTour directors, but so too is a winning edge.

THE UNDER-23 GIRO D’ITALIA is not a WorldTour race — but WorldTour teams were certainly watching as Bennett showed off his legs and his racing acumen this past June. The event has been an important showcase for young talents over the years, with the likes of Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), Joe Dombrowski (EF Education First-Drapac), and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) turning in strong performances there early in their careers.

For Bennett, it was an opportunity to use the form he’d built into during a busy spring. Axeon’s biggest season target, the Tour of California, had finished only a few weeks prior.

“It was just kind of race after race, and that was the last race in a big block of stage racing,” he says. “I think really the target during that time for most of the guys was California. I held form up until then.”

Bennett’s form was on full display on a sunny day along California’s Central Coast in May. A lumpy third stage of the Tour of California race saw multiple attacks and regroupings in the closing kilometers, with Toms Skujins jumping into a break on a late climb and then soloing clear. Bennett used his big engine to bridge up to the Latvian WorldTour rider.

The pair was together with a healthy gap to the pack as the Laguna Seca Raceway finishing circuit came into view, but then Skujins shot off the front. Bennett could not follow. Skujins snatched the stage win. Bennett slammed his bars in frustration at the near miss.

Sean Bennett settles for second behind Toms Skujins in stage 3 of the Amgen Tour of California. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for AEG

The stage may not have gone his way, but the form was there. A few weeks later in Italy, Bennett still had something left in the tank, and the drive to turn that into a result. That meant staying alert to breakaway opportunities in Italy.

A versatile rider, Bennett thrives on the attack, battling it out in a small group. He came up through the developmental ranks initially as a mountain biker before transitioning to the road, and he still retains those bike handling skills. He is a strong time trialist who can also climb and packs some punch too.

That whole package came in handy in stage 6 of the Baby Giro.

After rolling out from Dimaro Folgarida for a short, 120.7-kilometer day, Bennett stayed safe on an early, wet descent and then he and Robert Stannard (Mitchelton-BikeExchange) jumped clear on the day’s first real climb. They were joined by Alejandro Osorio (GW-Shimano) and Mark Donovan (Team Wiggins), both of whom were in the mix for the general classification. Stannard was in that conversation as well — he ultimately finished third overall at the Baby Giro.

The presence of GC hopefuls in the dangerous move set off alarm bells in the peloton behind, but the firepower off the front proved too much for the pack to match.

“When we hit it, we hit it,” Bennett says. “We put like two minutes on the field with a team chasing us.”

Bennett and Stannard had been off the front together on an earlier stage of the Baby Giro. That move hadn’t quite worked out, but with the peloton two minutes behind in stage 6, Bennett knew that this one would and that the 20-year-old Australian, set to ride with the WorldTour’s Mitchelton-Scott next year, would be the rider to beat in the final moments of the day.

That gap held into the waning kilometers of the stage, when it became clear that the group would stay away. Rain-slicked, narrow roads and an undulating parcours were not a serious problem for Bennett, who started looking to conserve energy as the escape edged closer to the finish line. With teammates Will Barta and João Almeida back in the peloton, he had an excuse to be all in for the stage win.

He found himself on the front of the group heading into the finale, not always the best place to be for a sprint, but his tactics paid off. He wound up to speed with a half kilometer still to go, and just as he’d expected, it was Stannard who mounted the biggest challenge. But Bennett proved to have just enough, eking out the victory ahead of his fellow up-and-comer.

A one-handed air punch at the finish line was the only celebration Bennett dared to risk.

“Stannard was quite close to me. I had like a half bike length on him,” he says. “You don’t know till you know.”

Photo: Chad Childers

A win in one of the world’s top under-23 events proved to any WorldTour outfits keeping an eye on the racing in Italy that Sean Bennett was the real deal. It also proved to Bennett himself that, every now and then, breakaways work out.

“[It proved that] my riding style can pay off. It’s not just all going to fail. That’s something that this year has taught me,” he says.

“If you try as much as you can if you have legs at all, there’s always a possibility. You might as well do it, rather than doing nothing.”

BENNETT FINISHED THE BABY GIRO 11th overall after landing in the top 10 in each of the final three stages. He would later finish top-10 at the Grand Prix de Wallonie, a bona fide pro race categorized at the UCI 1.1 level.

His collection of solid results, capped off with a big victory against some of the top up-and-comers in the sport, was just the sort of season Bennett needed. After just one year at the Pro Continental level, he is ready to continue climbing pro cycling’s ladder.

The 2018 season has been tough for domestic racers as it is, and Bennett, while young, is nearing the end of his time as an under-23 rider. His Baby Giro success, as well as his consistency, gave him more than a few reasons to be positive about his own future despite the challenges so many North American-based teams are facing right now.

“This year for the sport, it was just fighting the whole year, really hard, for everyone,” he says. “You can’t get comfortable.”

The way he approached this season, diving in head-first after the last minute call-up to Axeon, Bennett does not seem like the kind of rider in danger of “getting comfortable” any time soon.

This season was merely a stepping stone, one he calls his “biggest growth year.” He won’t content himself with a few solid rides in under-23 and lower-ranked pro events. He will, however, have plenty to build on moving forward, and a Wednesday afternoon in scenic northern Italy — even with a bit of rain — is one of those building blocks he won’t forget.