Some breakthrough performances come along when you least expect them. Sam Bennett's first ever win on the WorldTour stage was one such event and not even the Irishman could quite comprehend what he had achieved on stage 3 of Paris-Nice.
Almost the entire sprinting elite was here, with Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, and Michael Matthews all on the start line. For those with a penchant for stats, that's an impressive tally of 23 Tour de France stage wins, and Bennett saw them off with a calculated turn of speed that had even Marcel Kittel sit up and applaud during the German's post-race interview.
So unexpected was Bennett's win that he celebrated twice – once at the line and then again a few hundred meters later. A quick turn around, and a pat on the back from countryman Philip Deignan, and it was off to the podium for the 26-year-old Bora-Hansgrohe rider.
When he finally appeared at his winner's press conference, Bennett had regained his composure but the spring in his step was very much evident.
"I can't tell you what this race means to me," he said, shaking his head.
"To finally get a WorldTour win is something special and to do it at Paris-Nice it's an amazing feeling."
There were slight concerns at the start of the year that the influx of new riders and the presence of world champion Peter Sagan would stifle Bennett's progress but if anything the opposite is true. The pair linked up for the first time at the Tour Down Under and although they failed to secure a win, the experience has helped Bennett manage an essential element in his racing – nerves.
"Being around the guys who came on board this year, like Peter and the guys at Tinkoff, I've learnt to relax a bit more. They never stress, and I used to come to races with such high expectations and to try to fight for results. When it didn't happen, I'd get more stressed. Them coming over has helped a lot, and when you're with Peter – he doesn't even stress in the last kilometre."
New teammates may have raised Bennett's morale and taken some of the edge off his nerves, but the Irishman has put in the hard yards, too.
"Last year, especially at the Tour de France, when I crashed and was really just fighting to stay in, that really helped me gain strength. I went really deep last season. I recovered over the winter and that's brought me on another level," he said.
"The team has really stepped up this year and the support that you get, the information and resources are fantastic and that's showing in the results."
There is one more stage in Paris-Nice designed for the sprinters but within a few weeks Bennett's attention will turn to the Giro d'Italia and his debut in the Italian Grand Tour. He will lead Bora in the sprints while Sagan concentrates on picking up another Green Jersey in the Tour de France later in July. This win in Chalon-Sur-Saône is just the latest breakthrough in Bennett's career. Who knows, maybe there will be another one this May.
"I think that this is a great confidence booster for the Giro," he said before heading back to his team bus.
"I think that there will be a lot of great sprinters there also. To feel like I belong there, this will definitely add to my confidence. I've proven to myself that on the right day I can beat the guys and to have that in the back of my mind will help a lot. I've not really thought about it; I just can't really believe I've won."
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