There was a telling moment at the end of stage 3 of the BinckBank Tour. Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) had just got the nod in terms of the photo finish, which secured him the win ahead of Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma). And as he wheeled around and rode back toward the podium, other riders offered their congratulations. One was from Groenewegen’s Jumbo-Visma team, another from the UAE-Team Emirates squad of third-placed Jasper Philipsen.
Although Bennet was their rival, although he was the rider who had just beaten their sprint leaders into minor placings and denied those teams the elation of victory, the congratulations appeared both sincere and friendly.
It was clear to see their respect for Bennett, and also an apparent warmth for him. Such is the way things are with the affable Irishman. He is, in general, easygoing and open. He doesn’t have the ego of several other big sprinters, but is instead refreshingly down to earth.
In fact, he admits that he has self-doubt in the days before this Vuelta a España, as he does before other big events.
“It is funny, I thought I would have more confidence [by now],” he told VeloNews this week, speaking after taking a flight to join his team for the Vuelta. “But I always go into a race asking ‘how am I going to win again now, how do I do this?’
“I think some part of it is just the Irish mentality. We can’t take complements. We are not allowed to talk about ourselves, or else we are seen as arrogant… In some sense, I am afraid to be confident because of what people might think. But the thing is, the confidence is there [deep down] because when I get into the peloton and feel good, I feel I have more of a presence than I used to. I am not afraid to put myself in the position that I want to be in.”
Bennett remains the same approachable sort that he was several seasons ago. That explains the warmth other riders show to him. But, at the same time, he says that the necessary inner steel emerges when he needs to assert himself inside the final kilometers.
“Before the race, maybe the confidence might not be there,” he says. “But then once I am right in there, once it comes to the sprints—excuse the language—I am a dickhead!”
Bennett delivers the last word with a laugh, making it clear he is being humorous in his terminology. But while he is laid back off the bike, he has a laser focus when it comes to the finale of a sprint stage. That extends to pushing his way around if other riders try to muscle him out of the way.
And yet, despite that, the same rivals he rubs shoulders with appear to have a lot of respect for him. “I think that’s the case,” he agrees. “And I feel that the more you win, the more it is coming.
“I don’t disrespect any other rider myself, so I feel that there shouldn’t be a reason for people to hate me,” he elaborates, again overstating things in a humorous way. “Apart from me being a bit of an asshole when it comes down to it [laughs]. But it’s push or be pushed.”
That same fire is something which has marked him out as arguably the best sprinter in 2019. Bennett has had a storming season, winning on 11 occasions thus far. Those successes include WorldTour stage wins in the UAE Tour, Paris-Nice, the Tour of Turkey, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the BinckBank Tour, as well as other triumphs in the Vuelta a San Juan Internacional and the Irish road race championships.
Which makes his omission from the earlier grand tours all the more jarring. While Bennett is reluctant to criticize his Bora-Hansgrohe team, he is known to be frustrated by his third position in the pecking order there. He had expected to ride the Giro d’Italia but the younger, less experienced Pascal Ackermann was instead given the nod. And at the Tour de France, the team took Peter Sagan as its fast man.
Both decisions can be explained away by the team: Ackermann is German, and therefore has the same nationality as the squad and the sponsors. And Sagan was going for a record seventh Tour green jersey in July. On the other hand, Bennett is arguably the quickest rider in the peloton this season, and so it’s easy to understand his frustration.
“I feel…what’s the word…disposable,” he says, referring to how he thinks he is perceived by the team. “I think I am appreciated in that when they send me to any race I get a win; any team would love that. But I feel that, yeah, I am disposable…”
Target: Vuelta success
Bennett isn’t the kind to sit around licking his wounds. He found out last December that Bora-Hansgrohe was going to favor Pascal Ackermann for the Giro, and set about proving a point as soon as he could. His first win of the year came at the Vuelta a San Juan Internacional in early February, and he kept succeeding again and again after that.
Asked if being overlooked for the Giro and Tour fueled his desire to chase victories, he said there was more than one factor.
“Well,” he says, pausing for several seconds. “I think I am always going to want to win. I have my target each year. And I think when you are winning more, you get used to winning and you want it more and more.
“I think regardless of whether I [felt slighted] or not, I would be looking for results. Obviously I had a point to prove at the start of the year. I told the management and I told everybody that last year I learned so much that this year I am going to be more consistent and I am going to be a lot better. And I have done it. I have been there all year long. I told them that this will happen. Maybe back then the [decision about the] races did have an effect, but winning was something that I planned to do anyway.”
What’s clear is that Bennett’s time with Bora-Hansgrohe has come to an end. He has been with the team ever since he turned pro in 2014, and while it has been a productive relationship, both parties are heading for divorce. He’s high on the wish list of other squads and, following a rumored—and clearly unsuccessful—bid by Deceuninck-Quick-Step last year to secure him for 2019, he is reported to be heading to the Belgian team for next season.
Asked about this, Bennett said he couldn’t confirm anything in relation to 2020. “To be honest, there is so much going on at the minute that I am not able to comment on anything,” he said. “I have signed nothing yet. I am hoping that things will be finalized soon.”
Highly ambitious, Bennett won’t let the ongoing negotiations distract him from the task at hand. He knows the best way to underline his value is to grab another grand tour stage win, and will be aiming to do so early on in the Vuelta.
“Hopefully it will fall into place,” he says. “Right now, before the race, I am like, ‘Maybe I just need to relax a bit and not think about it.’ But there are strong guys like Fabio Jakobsen, he is really fast. And [Fernando] Gaviria—normally he comes back into shape really, really quickly. Also, I am going to have to get back into the flow with Shane [Archbold, his leadout man], because I haven’t done a sprint with him since the Dauphiné.
“So I am starting from scratch again, but the form is there. And Shane is good. Surely we are not going to be far off. I just need to get that win early so that the pressure is off, and then hopefully it can just flow a bit easier.”
Bennett is a better uphill rider than many of the sprinters, and believes that he will have to draw on that attribute early on. In the first week, there are three possible sprint opportunities, according to Bennett. And he will have to climb well to contest them.
What’s very encouraging are the good sensations he felt on the final day of the BinckBank Tour. That took place on a tough classics-style circuit, and he was still a factor heading onto the final lap. He knew, however, that the smart thing to do would be to back off and save something for the Vuelta—there were only five days before the grand tour began.
“This week I was afraid of being overcooked, and I wanted to go in undercooked for week three of the Vuelta,” Bennett said. “But I also have to be ready for the first week. I am happy that the opportunities come quick… I really want to get a win early.”
If things do go to plan and he lands multiple stage wins, what chances are there that he could end up with the points jersey? Bennett notes that the Vuelta is different to some other big stage races, with the most consistent rider award often going to a non-sprinter.
For example, Alejandro Valverde won it in 2012, 2013, 2015, and 2018. Chris Froome won in 2017, despite the fact that Matteo Trentin won four stages.
“It is very hard for a sprinter to get it,” he said. “I will battle the other sprinters, but there will be another battle going on, when I will be just trying to stay in the race, and the climbers are collecting points. If it was just sprinters, I will be right up there. All I can do is to try and win as much as possible where I can. Hopefully I can come back with it.”
Looking ahead: “You have to win at the Tour”
Bennett’s plans for 2020 are being finalized and could well be announced in the coming days. He’s clear that he needs to be given the chance to chase major results; no more playing second fiddle to others. That means going back to the biggest event in cycling after what would be a gap of four years.
He rode the Tour de France twice, lining up in 2015 and 2016, but suffered illness, crashes, and bad luck. Consequently, he said in December 2016 that he wanted to take a break from the race and to chase success in the Giro instead. Now, older and stronger, it’s time to step up again.
“My plan is to do the Tour de France next year,” he says with conviction. “I have to get there. I will be 29 at that time. I am ready now. I can compete for stages, that is my number-one priority. The thing is, you are not considered a top sprinter unless you win at the Tour. And especially when you are negotiating a contract—without that, it is like you are not up there. That’s even though I can beat all the guys that have won stages there.
“You simply have to win at the Tour. You have to have it for the wage increase, you have to have it to get more respect.”
Bennett’s interactions with his fellow pros at the BinckBank Tour and elsewhere show that he already has respect amongst his peers. But, in the wider sense, the Tour de France is where legends are made. To be truly great, to fully earn and own the tag of the quickest sprinter in cycling, he needs to take his natural speed and instincts and translate those into success in the month of July.