Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) was as happy as he was relieved to win the final stage of the Vuelta a San Juan on Sunday, admitting that he had felt the pressure to hit the line first after Peter Sagan again sacrificed his own chances and led out the sprint for the Irishman.
Bennett had to fight back from a late move from Deceuninck-QuickStep, who bumped him off his teammate's wheel, but that seemed to inspire him even more and he charged past Alvaro Hodeg (Deceuninck-QuickStep) to win on the San Juan ring road.
Bennett had finished third on the opening stage, and then the break of local riders stayed away on stage 6, raising the expectations on the final sprint.
"It’s great to win, it’s a relief, the pressure has gone," Bennett said, savouring his first win of 2019.
"It’s always nice to get a win in the very first stage race. I needed it because I’d put pressure on myself. It’s really nice that the team had so much confidence in me and gave me three chances in the three sprint stages.
"Considering what Peter has won, he doesn't have to lead me out; he could sprint himself. Sagan leading me out is really cool but it puts me under pressure, too. Fortunately, the whole team did a fantastic job and gave 110 per cent. With teammates like him, I can't screw up. I had to pay them back."
The San Juan peloton raced at over 54kph for the final 10 minutes of the 141km stage and the final kilometres were even faster. Dimension Data did a perfect lead-out for Mark Cavendish but then Bora-Hansgrohe and Deceuninck-QuickStep came up to the front inside the final kilometre with a late, almost desperate charge.
Hodeg tried to barge his way onto the Bora-Hansgrohe train, shoulder charging Bennett out into the wind. He wisely let him do it, convinced he had the speed to win and so used him as the perfect lead out.
"Our train was to be Peter, then Erik Baška and then me," Bennett explained, recalling every detail of the final kilometre despite riding it at over 70kph.
"I could see that Deceuninck-QuickStep were focusing on me and in the last 300 metres they pushed me in the wind. I could have pushed back but we would both have been in the wind and so it was a lose-lose scenario. I was a bit annoyed but it was a clever move by them, they knew what they were doing. The best thing would have been to block the spot before they could get in but it was too late when they pushed in.
"I decided to give them the space, let them in and go later but I almost waited too long. In the end I just had enough road and got it in the last 50 metres."
Bennett perhaps lacks a little of the sprinter’s self-confidence and swagger but makes up for it with pure speed and desire to win for his hardworking teammates. He leaves Argentina with his first win of 2019 and the confidence that he can deliver when Bora-Hansgrohe and even Peter Sagan sacrifices their chances to help him.
"Winning early gives you morale for the next race," Bennett said, confirming he will next compete at the UAE Tour, where he will face Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin)
"I'm confident going home and motivated to train hard for two and half weeks. I've got a bit of work to do but I hope to have the legs there."