Sam Bennett (An Post-Sean Kelly) is enjoying a baptism of fire in the professional ranks. Last week’s Tour of Qatar was not only the young Irishman’s first race as a pro, it also marked his return to racing after a seven-month lay-off with a knee injury. Bennett is currently in action at the Tour of Oman.
“Not only am I trying to come back after seven months, but I’m trying to step up a level on top of that, so it is hard,” Bennett told Cyclingnews. “I’m a bit disappointed I can’t really do anything on any of the stages. I’m having a cut here and there alright, but it’s hard to do anything.”
At just 20 years of age, Bennett is one of the youngest riders in action in the Gulf and he admitted that the step-up in level has been an eye-opening experience.
“I never experienced anything like this, the mixture of the level of the riders and the wind and the roads,” Bennett said. “You can see how experienced lads are in the field. They have so much power, you can tell they’re at it for years, they’re just hardened pros.
“They just know what they’re doing. Everything is so cool. In an amateur race, it’s panic and chaos. Here, it’s more ‘this is what’s happening, and here’s how we counteract it.’”
Bennett has been observing some of those hardened pros at close quarters in Qatar and Oman, and two men stand out in particular. Having spent the best part of the last decade watching Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara’s exploits on television, Bennett is relishing the opportunity to rub shoulders with them.
“You look at them on TV and you don’t think they’re real. Then you come out here and you see them in front of you, and you just think ‘oh God, what am I doing here?’” Bennett joked. “It’s good to see the level they’re at and see what I have to work towards.”
Recovering from injury
As well as cutting his teeth at the professional level, Bennett is also using the warm weather miles to gauge the condition of his knees. The talented Irishman was set to ride as a stagiaire with FDJ at the end of 2010 but his season was cut short by injury.
“I was meant to go as a stagiaire with FDJ but the knees came against me,” he said. “Each week I thought it was getting better, but when I’d go out and do a hard session it would keep coming back. In the end, we just had to call it a year. I was really disappointed as I’d have liked to have had a real cut off being a stagiare at FDJ.”
Indeed, 2010 was a difficult year from the outset. Bennett suffered from a bout of swine flu early in the season, and was then struck by a car, an accident which put him off the bike for two months.
“Then when I was coming back, my knees starting causing me problems,” he said. “They reckon it was a combination of the crash and my position on the bike.”
After consulting with Limerick-based physiotherapist Ger Hartman, whose clients include runners Paula Radcliffe and Sonia O’Sullivan, Bennett began to get to grips with the tendonitis-like symptoms.
“When I have a bit of a niggle, I contact Gerard Hartman and tell him exactly how it is and he tells me what to do,” Bennett explained. “He’s really good. He’s all in favour of treating injuries the natural way; he doesn’t go in for surgery or anything like that.”
Signing with Kelly
Bennett’s turbulent 2010 ended on a high note, however, when he signed with the An Post-Sean Kelly team. Hailing from Kelly’s hometown of Carrick-on-Suir and boasting a rapid sprint, Bennett was always likely to be laden with the “new Kelly” tag, but it is something he takes in his stride.
“It’s cool coming from his home town and it does encourage me, but every new rider in Ireland is the new Kelly,” he smiled. “I don’t put myself under that much pressure and I don’t expect to achieve what he achieved.”
In any case, Bennett was glad to find a professional contract after two spells with VC La Pomme in France.
“At the end of last year I was stuck, I didn’t know where to go or who to look to,” Bennett said. “Then Sean Kelly and Kurt Bogaerts really took me under their wing and looked after me. I could see how professional they were, they really helped me, so I thought it was the best option.”
While Bennett openly acknowledges that racing with Boonen, Cancellara et al is a huge step up in class for him, he certainly has some experience when it comes to making a smooth transition to a higher level of racing. In 2009, he won a stage of Ireland’s national tour the Rás with a stunning sprint into Clara, just months after leaving the junior ranks.
“I felt at the start of that week like I was out of my depth,” he said. “I had a lot going on at home, I wasn’t really training properly and I’d only finished my college exams three days beforehand. I’d never raced over 80 miles and the stages were over 100 miles.
“It was a big step up but sometimes I have the ability to surprise.”