The landscape may have been pancake flat, but there were ups and downs aplenty for Sam Bennett as he made his NetApp-Endura debut at the Tour of Qatar on Sunday. The new arrival from the An Post-Chain Reaction team finished his day in the white jersey of best young rider after a gritty performance in trying conditions.
A product of the famous Carrick Wheelers club and the youngest ever stage winner at the Rás, Ireland's most important stage race, Bennett's turn of speed landed him a victory at the Tour of Britain last year and saw him make the step-up to Pro Continental ranks with NetApp-Endura for 2014.
Bennett's previous appearance in Qatar came three years ago, when as a callow 20-year-old coming off a nagging knee injury, every day was a source of apprehension. This time around, the Irishman enjoyed a rather more assured beginning, picking up a bonus second at the first intermediate sprint after 20 kilometres.
"The first time I was here, I was at the back before kilometre zero, so I was delighted with that alright," Bennett told Cyclingnews as he pedalled to his team car from the podium. "We said if were still together for the first sprint, I'd give it a little bit of a go. I got third in it, so that meant I'd have a second in hand if it came down to a bunch finish at the end, and that's how I ended up in the white jersey."
Not that the story of his afternoon was as straightforward as that. Shortly after that opening sprint, the peloton swung into a long, crosswind section, where Omega Pharma-QuickStep and BMC, in particular, set about shattering the peloton into echelons.
At last year's Tour de France, Mark Cavendish famously compared riding in echelons to falling through ice - "You've got five seconds to make it or you are finished," he said - and Bennett spent much of his afternoon fighting to avoid plunging out of contention.
After gamely battling to stay with the second group, Bennett was jettisoned out the back with 50 kilometres or so remaining. It seemed at that point that his race was run, but when the two front groups merged, he was able to take advantage of the brief lull to claw his way back to safety.
"I was in the second group and I was kind of staying at the back and it was good, but then when it went into one line - ah man, I was swinging and just flapping in the wind," Bennett said. "I lost contact for a little bit, but luckily it kind of stalled and I got back on. When I did, I just went straight to the front and they kind of whacked it again a couple of seconds afterwards, so I was lucky, really lucky."
By then, the winning break had drifted off the front, but with the gap lingering at around 15 seconds on the run-in to the finish at Dukhan Beach, Bennett was still harbouring hopes of contesting a sprint for stage victory.
Niki Terpstra and company held off the bunch, which lessened the disappointment, but Bennett lost several positions while avoiding the crash that brought down Pieter Van Speybrouck (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) in the final kilometre, and he had to settle for 14th on the stage.
"I was nervous when we were coming in to the final, I don't know why, and there were a few crashes that knocked us back," he said. "The guys on the team did an amazing job of keeping me up there at the front, but we were just unlucky in the end with the crashes."