Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by NV/PN/CorVos/SWpix.com
Sam Bennett initially felt intimidated when he joined Deceuninck-Quick-Step last season but a year on has cemented not only his place within the team’s decorated halls but is proving to be the pure sprinter to beat.
Bennett opened his 2021 account last month with two stage victories at the UAE Tour, a litmus test for the world’s best fast-men, before winning two stages of Paris-Nice that finishes this weekend.
The results follow an emphatic showing at the Tour de France last season in which he won two stages and the green jersey. Bennett moved fans with his emotional reaction after his maiden Tour triumph 10 days in, after which he concertedly focused on the maillot vert. The amiable 30-year-old defeated long-standing champion Peter Sagan to top the points classification in a battle that lasted virtually the entire Tour.
Before joining Deceuninck-Quick-Step, the former Irish national champion described himself as an underdog despite stage victories at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana. Yet asked after the UAE Tour if he was the pure sprinter to beat this season, Bennett had one word.
“Trying,” he said.
“I was always used to being the underdog. I always came in kind of a little bit off the radar and there was no pressure, and I came from behind to win. I always … had somebody else as a point of reference.
“But this year I’m the point of reference, and last year, and people are judging their position off me and their timing off me.
“That was a lot of pressure and that took a little bit of time to get used to,” Bennett continued. “And also because we’re in this time that any little mistake – there’s five or six guys that are going to take the opportunity that are right behind you.
“I’m used to it now and I don’t even think about it anymore. But initially, yeah, that was a big change and also it was something I think I had to get stronger for, kind of train a little different. It was a different approach to sprinting than I was used to, but I’ve adapted.”
Deceuninck-Quick-Step have previously delivered the likes of Marcel Kittel, Fernando Gaviria, Elia Viviani and Mark Cavendish to celebrated success and Bennett credits the team’s prowess partly to a strong foundation of support riders.
“Every team has personalities and the way they run, there’s real confidence, you’re just reassured that everything you’re doing is correct and you just go in knowing what to do,” he said.
“I think maybe at the start of the year it took me a bit of time to really get used to that [leadership] position in that team because it was a dream to go there but it was still a little bit intimidating going there.
“I feel myself actually that it wasn’t until the Tour … where all the sprints ended up being more practiced and then it just clicked and now it flows really well. We stepped right back in this year and it was as if we had no time off.”
The UAE Tour has a history of, at least with sprinters, setting the tone for the season ahead.
The absence of invited international media this year did not diminish the message Bennett and the ‘Wolfpack’ sent to the rest of the peloton in what would have been a clean sweep of sprint victories had Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) not taken line honours on the final stage.
“During the season the Tour de France seems to be the place where people judge sprinters and now it’s kind of becoming that UAE is the early season race that people judge the sprinters [by] as well because everybody is there, most of the guys are there. It’s nice to have a good run of results there,” Bennett said.
“To be honest it was just a real relief. I was super happy to start the season like that and after last year, I didn’t get a stage there last year.
“I was really happy because, you know, you always think you’re off doing the best winter of your career and you always go out putting an expectation on yourself, but you don’t really know until you actually race, whether it’s worked or paid off.
“It was really confirmation that I did a good winter this year, so I was really happy with that. But then, also, the way the boys were riding, it would be bad form if I didn’t win!”
Bennett started this season on the back of the Tour and Vuelta, which ran late and in quick succession following a revision of the 2020 calendar.
“I don’t think I got an extra level,” he said of having the two Grand Tours in his legs.
“I’m pretty much the same but what I did notice was stopping right after a Grand Tour and then after three-four weeks starting again, the form came back much quicker. Whereas … say if I stopped after the Tour de France, your form is slowly going down until the end of the year if you don’t have a target, so you’re stopping with a lot less condition.
“After the Vuelta, stopping at such a high level, it just comes back, it came back super quick and then you can build on top of that.”
Bennett is targeting Milan-San Remo next weekend and hopes he can carry some of the momentum he and his team have already generated into that.
“Everybody has a job to do in the win and everybody is proud of what they contribute. The morale is just so high, and it fuels itself. I think also once it gathers momentum it keeps going and it’s contagious in the team, it spreads and grows. It’s gathering momentum already,” he said.