Disappointment and adrenaline can make a potent cocktail, and so sprinters are often best approached cautiously after a defeat, but Sam Bennett is not altogether typical of the breed.
After placing fourth in the sprint at the end of stage 1 of the Tour of Qatar, for instance, Bennett was to be found sitting alongside his teammate Rüdiger Selig in the open boot of the Bora-Argon 18 car, listening earnestly as the German offered his debrief of the finale.
“There were a few little mistakes that Rudi noticed but I didn’t. I thought it was pretty good because it was on all day and it’s hard to make those calls when you’re fucked,” Bennett said matter-of-factly afterwards.
“The guys did an amazing job all day looking after me and I think I bottled it a bit at the end. I just waited too long and I should have been a little bit more aggressive. Maybe it was a confidence thing that I didn’t expect to be there today. Hopefully I don’t make the same mistake twice.”
The Irishman’s quiet frustration at placing fourth behind winner Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) in the sprint will only have been amplified by the fact that he had already lived up to the hardest part of the day’s bargain.
Monday’s stage was an especially brutal one, run off at an average speed of almost 52kph after crosswinds had shattered the peloton well within the opening hour of racing. Bennett surprised himself by making the elite selection of 21 riders on the front, and he had teammates Seliger and Zak Dempster for company in an echelon including Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Greg Van Avermaet that eventually finished almost two minutes up on the bunch.
“I think it was a bit of luck that I was in there because I was swinging like a bike length off the back and I just got in, I don’t know how,” Bennett said. “I kept riding until I recovered again. It was better to ride through, it was easier. I got a second wind and I was alright then.”
Perhaps surprisingly, all of the Tour of Qatar’s marquee sprinters were part of the decisive echelon and though Bennett, Cavendish and Kristoff each had teammates on board, circumstances dictated that hitching a free ride was nigh-on impossible.
“There were a few people trying but anytime somebody sat on, it went into one line and there was a lot of guys in the gutter, so I wasn’t going to chance that,” Bennett said. “If I wasn’t in the shelter and hanging on the back instead, I would have been gone. So I just kept riding all day.”
The Tour of Qatar is Bennett’s second competitive outing of the year, after he kicked off his campaign with a brace of near misses at last month’s Challenge Mallorca, placing second and fourth in bunch sprints won by André Greipel. By his own reckoning, Bennett pared down significantly during the off-season, thanks in no small part to spending a sizeable portion of the winter training in Monaco rather than in his native Carrick-on-Suir.
“Ireland was just too wet, it was a really bad winter. I went home for a week over Christmas and had one five-hour spin and I don’t know how I did it before, I had to go home to bed for two hours afterwards,” Bennett told Cyclingnews in Dukhan on Monday morning.
“It was good not to have to worry about the weather all winter. I’m still not much lighter, but I lost a bit of fat and gained a bit of muscle, so hopefully that’s functional muscle and it will come into play when I need it.”
In particular, Bennett will hope that his work around Monaco can pay dividends on the Italian side of the Riviera come March, when he lines out for his second tilt at Milan-San Remo. Although the Irishman is careful to stress that he is not trumpeting himself as a contender for the win, he is intrigued to see how much better he might fare by arriving at La Classicissima at optimum weight, having been dropped on the Cipressa a year ago.
“I’d like to go there and compete and be there in really good condition so I can get a feel for it and see how I get on,” he said. “Last year, I was just too heavy and a few weeks later I was 4 kilos lighter, and I kept thinking of how I nearly got over the second last climb.
“This year if I can get there in better shape then maybe I can get over the final climbs with the front group. I don’t expect to do anything, but I’d like to be there in the final fighting for it anyway. All I can is try and see how I get on.”
In the intervening period, Bennett will look to pick up wins wherever he can find them, as his Bora-Argon 18 team stakes its claim for a wildcard invitation to the Tour de France. A victory in an ASO race such as the Tour of Qatar or Oman, in particular, would do the German outfit’s chances no harm. “There’s pressure because it’s not decided until you actually get the invite, so we have to keep fighting for it,” he said.
There is a sense of unfinished business with the Tour de France, too, for the 25-year-old. Bennett’s build-up to last year’s debut was ruined by injury, and though he battled gamely all the way through to the third week, he abandoned the race having contested just one bunch sprint.
“After first two stages I thought I was going to be lucky to get to stage 5. I was just hanging on and it was just ‘one more day, one more day’ then ‘one more minute’ and eventually on stage 17, I just popped,” he said.
“I felt like I wasn’t myself at it. I just want to go back at my best and see what I’m able to do when my form is good.”