Amid all the speed and power, a bunch sprint is also a sequence of instinctive choices. The effects of a misstep or a moment's indecision are amplified to ruinous effect when the speedometer touches 70 kilometres per hour. Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) has been among the most consistent sprinters at this Giro d'Italia, but the Irishman could draw little solace from his reliability after placing third behind Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) in Reggio Emilia on Thursday.
Bennett was well-marshalled by his Bora-Hansgrohe squad in the finale, but they were outflanked by Gaviria and his lead-out train within sight of the finish line on Viale Isonzo. After wheeling to halt at the team bus, Bennett took full responsibility for missing out on the win, not out of self-pity, but as a simple statement of fact.
"The guys did an absolutely amazing job, but I got caught out when Quick-Step came on the left," Bennett said. "I wasn't expecting it. I had a moment of hesitation when I just froze. It was my own fault. The guys on my team did a super job but I don't know what I did."
The final result precisely mirrored the sprint in Messina in week one, when Gaviria took the spoils and Bennett was pipped to second place by Jakub Mareczko (Wilier-Triestina). On that occasion, Bennett's top-end speed was still limited by the lingering effects of the illness that caused him to lose three kilograms in one night in Sardinia.
"I thought I was back to 100 percent," Bennett said, and then corrected himself: "I think I am. But I just have to make the right decisions in the final, and that's very difficult to do.
"There are so many sprinters here on such a similar level. Nobody is standing out and if you have that moment of hesitation it's over. It's just so close here. That's what happening: that second or two where I didn't make the right call. I should have gone left and I went right around Rudi [Selig – ed.]. They came from behind with such speed…"
For all that this has been a Giro of sprint equals, Fernando Gaviria is already guaranteed to leave the race with the biggest haul out of all the fast men. After a brace of false starts in Sardinia, the Colombian hit his stride in Cagliari on stage 3, and victory in Reggio Emilia was his third of the race, and further strengthened his hold on the maglia ciclamino of points leader.
"The first time he sprinted he wasn't sprinting with a bunch of sprinters, but his team did a great job," Bennett said. "The second time, I hit the wind early and he came off my wheel. Today, they did a great job. He's shown experience beyond his years again. He's so young, he's only going to get stronger."
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Bennett, meanwhile, has three third place finishes – in Messina, Alberobello and now Reggio Emilia – to show for his endeavours on this Giro. It marks progress on his two ill-starred Tour de France appearances to date, when injury reduced his ability to participate in bunch finishes at all, but sprinters are not much given to taking comfort in consolation prizes.
"I've got to hand it to the guys. Without them, I wouldn't be running top threes all the time but we came here to try to win stages, not run podiums," Bennett said.
Friday's pan-flat run from Reggio Emilia to Tortona, described by Alessandro Petacchi as "the easiest stage of the Giro," is also the very last chance for the sprinters, given that the mountainous third week is bookended by a time trial in Milan rather than one last road stage. A number of sprinters, most notably André Greipel (Lotto Soudal), are expected to leave the Giro after Friday's stage. Bennett is keenly aware that it is his final opportunity to open his Grand Tour account on this race.
"I have to do it, like. I have to try to get a win here," he said. "I'm a bit disappointed. But I have to take away some positives. The lead-out train is fantastic, and I've been really consistent even with illness, so I can take confidence from that."