Having signed for the German Netapp-Endura team for the 2014 season, Sam Bennett is the latest Irish rider to make it into the professional ranks of world cycling.
Bennett, now 23-years-old, was signed for the Pro Contiental NetApp-Endura team off the back of an extremely impressive showing at the 2013 Tour of Britain where he won stage five to Caerphilly and finished second on two other stages, behind Gerard Ciolek and Mark Cavendish, respectively.
He had previously spent three years with the An Post-Chainreaction team where he made a habit of winning stages of Ireland's premier stage race, the Rás Tailteann. But he has had to deal with injuries along the way, as well as the nagging feeling that he may have missed the boat which would have brought him to the upper ecehlons of the sport a lot sooner.
Bennett flirted with moving to a professional team before when he was offered a stagiaire role with the FDJ team in 2010 when he was still only 19-years-old. But it didn't quite work out as expected.
"I was with [amateur French club] VC La Pomme Marseille back then" Bennett explained. "In December 2009 I had an accident, I was hit head on by a car out training. So I started the next season without much training done but I got form pretty quick and got a few results. Then [FDJ directeur sportif] Marc Madiot came to watch me in a prologue, I didn't know, but I did really well and he offered me the stagiaire role and said he'd like to develop me and all that."
But in the summer of 2010 it became clear that Bennett had not allowed himself sufficient time to recover from injuries sustained in the crash, which set him back even further.
"I should have taken my time but I got tendonitis and I just couldn't do the stagiaire role. Then they said 'look we don't want you when you're worrying about your knees' then that kind of fell through."
Instead, Bennett was signed by the An Post-Sean Kelly team, as they were labelled then, where he spent the next three years competing largely in low-ranked Irish and Belgian races. On reflection, having had a WorldTour team come calling, it must have felt like he had missed his chance at reaching the top level of the sport.
"Yeah, it kind of did. I know that the younger you are the easier it is to move up because teams look at your potential. The older you get, the harder it gets [to move up]. But then An Post really took me under their wing and helped developed me and got me to where I am today."
Although the records show that he was on their books in late 2010, Bennett never took part in a race for FDJ. With hindsight, the Irishman now believes this to be a blessing in disguise.
"I'm happy the way things worked out. I feel like in one way, I've earned my position here with Netapp-Endura. OK, it took a couple of years to get where I am now but I'm feeling more ready and more capable now."
He is currently away on a training camp in Mallorca with his new German-based team where he is getting used to life in the professional ranks.
"It's definitely something different to what I'm used to. What I find now is everything is really well organised, everything is scheduled and we have a path at the start of the week that we follow the whole way through.
"They have specific sprint training for the sprinters. They don't try and train everyone together," explains Bennett who had gotten used to more generic training at the An Post team. "We'd all do the same training [at An Post]. And I don't think the same training works for everybody because everybody's different."
Bennett proved in that Tour of Britain that he is capable in a variety of finales from flat-out bunch sprints to tougher, more selective affairs. So what sort of rider do Netapp-Endura think they've signed?
"I think they saw what type of rider I was from the Tour of Britain and some of my results last year. So they had an idea already but they did ask me about the classics and races like that, so hopefully I'll get a ride in the races I like doing. If I train for the climbs, I can get over them pretty well, but they know I want to be a sprinter and that's what they're helping me become."
Bennett has spent most of his life in Carrick-On-Suir, the same town which Sean Kelly calls home, but he was actually born in Belgium and lived there until he was four years old. The Belgian classics are something which the former Under-23 Irish Champion sees in his future.
"I'd love to be able to compete in some of the classics and get a good result in them but I think that's a little bit of time away. We'll see, I'll definitely give them a shot but I don't know how my first year as a pro is gonna turn out. If I become a really good sprinter, I'll be happy."
Upon signing for Netapp-Endura, there was a distinct possiblity that Bennett would be able to compete for bunch sprint victories in the Giro d'Italia which starts in Ireland this year. But in the proceeding months it was revealed that the team were not to be one of the four wild card teams invited to the first Grand Tour of the year. Consequently, Bennett will miss out on the once-in-a-career opportunity of racing a Grand Tour on home soil.
"The thing is whether I'd get a ride in the Giro even if we had been selected. It's something that I don't know, I'm still young and there's so many good guys on the team. So I'm going in with an open mind this season. Maybe I'll get a ride in a Grand Tour, maybe I won't. I'd absolutely love to ride one but I don't know what way it's gonna go. That's something that's out of my control so I won't worry about it if I can't do anything about it."
Something Bennett does have control of is the aggression he exudes when battling for position before a mass sprint finish, something which Sean Kelly himself has said in the past that Bennett could do with dialing up a notch.
"You can't get intimidated and pushed around," declares Bennett. "If guys start thinking 'OK, this is a guy I can push around easily,' they'll do it more and more often. When you go into the pro ranks you kinda have to put a stop to that pretty soon, pretty early, so it doesn't carry on. It's something that I won't allow happen, you don't go in thinking about it, but if it happens, I'll put a stop to it and make sure I do it as soon as possible."
Bennett is due to start his season with two back to back stage races at the Tour's of Qatar and Oman where he will have his first encounter of the season with the major sprinting stars of world cycling.
"I'd absolutely love to hit it with a bang, but you never know how you're form is gonna be until you arrive. I know I've done a good bit of work on my sprint so it's good. But sprinting is one part of it, you have to get to the finish first and get there fresh and then you have to be in the right position. So I'll see how I get on, because you're gonna have the likes of Cav and all that there so it's not gonna be easy."
Although he won't be in Belfast at the start of the Giro, later on in the year, Bennett is looking forward to racing on home soil at the national championships which is due to take place in County Westmeath at the end of June.
"For sure, the nationals, you have to do them. Everybody wants that jersey so it's gonna be a hard race regardless of who is in it," says Bennett who, conversely, will likely miss out on riding the Rás for only the second time in his career since 2009 when he became the youngest stage winner in the race's history, aged 18.
"I can't ride the Rás for Netapp-Endura. but I could ride it as part of the Irish team for Cycling Ireland. But I'd say I probably won't be there. It would be nice to do for sure, I mean I don't know what way my season's gonna go. Maybe another eight day stage race at that time might be a bit too much for me this season. So I'll have to see when it comes to it."
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