Too soon. Sam Bennett shook his head glumly as a Bora-Hansgrohe soigneur helped beat a path for him through the bodies and bikes clogging up the finish area in Eilat after stage 3 of the Giro d'Italia. Too soon to talk about going too soon in the sprint.
After swinging off the bustling Kamen Street and onto a quieter side street, Bennett was able to put some words on his disappointment at placing third for the second successive day in a bunch sprint won by Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors).
"I went too early, I basically gave Viviani a free win, that's it," Bennett said softly as he pedalled gingerly towards his night's lodgings on the Red Sea coast.
Bennett was sitting in fourth wheel when the peloton slowed to negotiate the final, sharp right-hander with a shade under 250 metres to go, and he opted to open his sprint immediately on emerging from the bend. Bennett opened an early gap, but Viviani quickly moved onto his rear wheel, and then squeezed between the Irishman and the barriers to come past inside the final 80 metres, while Sacha Modolo (EF-Drapac) powered through to claim second place.
"It was just too early, especially when you're coming out of a corner that slow," Bennett said. "But I know that if we were coming in at speed, I had the power to hold off anyone there."
While Bennett was making his way towards his hotel, the UCI’s video commissaire was reviewing footage of the finishing sprint and, in particular, his deviation across the road in the final 100 metres. At one point, it appeared as though Bennett might close Viviani against the barriers, but the echoes of a fellow Carrick-on-Suir man's clashes with Eric Vanderaerden in the 1980s faded as he shifted his line in time to allow the maglia ciclamino to come by.
The jury's decision not to declassify Bennett was swiftly criticised by RAI analyst and one-time Mario Cipollini lead-out man Silvio Martinello – "They've risked setting a bad precedent" – though Viviani himself was more conciliatory. "There was a blatant deviation, but I came through fine, so there's no need to cause a polemic," Viviani said.
For his part, Bennett suggested that he was scarcely aware of Viviani's positioning as they closed in on the finish line. "I was just all over the place. I didn't really know what was happening at that stage, I was cross-eyed," Bennett said. "I'd rather win by being more powerful. The next time, if I'm on his wheel, I’ll go by him."
Between this year and last, Bennett has now placed in the top three no fewer than six times in bunch sprints at the Giro, and, on all bar one occasion, the stage has been won by a Quick-Step rider. Fernando Gaviria claimed four stages for the men in blue twelve months ago, and Viviani has slotted into the same bête noir role in 2018.
"Again, we led out Quick-Step. I think this is what the fifth or sixth time on the Giro we've led them out, and I'm fed up of that, but the win is coming here," Bennett said. “How many times have I podiumed here? Six times or something? But if we keep knocking on the door, eventually something will open."
Bennett might have to wait for a shot at redemption. With three rugged stages to come following the Giro caravan’s transfer to Sicily, the next likely opportunity for the sprinters will be in Praia a Mare on stage 7.