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WorldTour rookie Sean Bennett embarks on season of discovery

The 22-year-old American knows his best years are ahead of him, but first comes the task evaluating his strengths and weaknesses as a pro rider.

AL AIN, United Arab Emirates (VN) — On a spring day in 2010, then 14-year-old Sean Bennett started his first ever bicycle race: a NorCal High School mountain bike league event held in Monterey, California. When the gun went off Bennett stomped on his platform pedals, sprinted to the top of the first hill, and never looked back. He won by a considerable margin.

Nine years later, Bennett started his first WorldTour race as a member of pro cycling’s highest echelon here at the UAE Tour.

So far, so good.

“It was good, I think we rode really well as a team,” Bennett told VeloNews after the opening team time trial. “I don’t think I made any mistakes.”

Bennett has ridden three stages of the UAE Tour thus far. He rode a strong effort in the opening team time trial, eventually slipping off the back of his EF squad and crossing the finish just 27 seconds behind them. On stage 2, a windy and aggressive road stage, Bennett crossed the line in the main bunch, just beside his team leader, Tejay van Garderen.

Bennett then faced the brutal climb to Jebel Hafeet on stage 3, crossing the line in 63rd place, eight minutes behind winner Alejandro Valverde. Nearly one-third of the field finished 15 minutes behind the winner’s time.

The UAE Tour represents the first step in a season of discovery for Bennett, 22. Like most riders his age, Bennett’s legs and lungs have yet to reach their full potential. In truth, Bennett still does not know what style of racing suits him best, which is a testament to his versatility. Bennett can sprint, manage mid-sized climbs, blaze a fast time trial, and survive a stage race.

“I think we’re still trying to figure out what type of rider I’m going to be,” Bennett said. “This year will go a long way toward determining that because the level is so much higher. Whatever I’m bad at will be really pronounced. So maybe next year we’ll really find out.”

In the coming months, Bennett will embark on a series of WorldTour and second-tier races, to test his legs against other pro riders. Following the UAE Tour Bennett will complete a high altitude training camp with EF before tackling Italy’s Coppi e Bartali, a challenging four-day stage race that is often a harbinger of future success.

Bennett will then race the hilly Amstel Gold Race and La Flèche Wallonne classics before starting the Amgen Tour of California in May and the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. His results at those races could determine whether Bennett will be a man for the hilly classics or a rider for longer stage races.

EF management will give Bennett a low-pressure environment to learn the ebb and flow of WorldTour racing. Tom Southam, EF’s sport director, said the racing schedule provides Bennett opportunities to score results at smaller events, and challenge himself in big races.

“Young riders are always a project, and we’re giving [Bennett] time and space to develop,” Southam said. “You do WorldTour races where you’re not there to win, but to help the team. And then there are smaller races where they have an opportunity to win. We have a lot of those races this year.”

Like other WorldTour directors, Southam first saw Bennett’s potential at the 2018 Amgen Tour of California, where he rode for Axel Merckx’s Hagens Berman-Axeon U23 development team. During the race’s hilly stage 3, Bennett attacked into the final two-man group alongside Toms Skujins and finished a close second.

That result came amid a flurry of impressive finishes. Bennett won the best young rider jersey at the Tour of the Gila in April; in June Bennett won a stage of Italy’s Baby Giro.

Bennett said he is still adjusting to life at the WorldTour level. He has spent much of the year traveling to training camps away from home. And then, there are a few perks of the job he has gotten used to.

For him, even something simple like a shower on the team bus is a welcome change.

“You’re not worrying about rushing home to get in the shower before your massage,” Bennett said. “You’re clean. You get back to the hotel and you can just relax. That makes life a lot easier.”