Before the start of stage 6 in Abbeville, Tour de France neophyte Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) was already wondering quite how much longer his debut might last. Laid low by illness in June, the Irishman had to race against time just to earn selection and after more than a month without competitive action in the build-up, it was hardly surprising that the transition to life on the Tour proved anything but gentle.
“I don’t feel so good and I think it’s too early to be feeling not so good,” Bennett told Cyclingnews that morning, downing a coffee as he waited to be called to the start line. “It looks so much easier on TV. The preparation wasn’t ideal and I think it shows. And then when the form isn’t good, you just can’t fight for position so I’m fighting a losing battle really.”
Even the most casual viewer of the Tour has an appreciation of the hardships endured by each of its participants, but a sprinter’s pride is an intractable thing. “It’s on TV worldwide and you want to perform but you’re one of the guys they show when they switch to the back of the bunch and you’re struggling. I don’t really like that,” Bennett said, frustrated, too, that the few sprint opportunities in this most mountainous of Tours were passing him by.
A day later, in Fougères, Bennett finally engineered a chance for himself, despite his limited form and despite the squatting presence of so many overall contenders in prime sprint real estate in the closing kilometres. Mark Cavendish would claim his first win of this Tour, while Bennett was boxed in and had to settle for 10th, performing an unsparing self-appraisal as he warmed down on the turbo trainer afterwards.
“I was in a good position until the last right-hander and I got squeezed a little bit and I bottled it. I messed up there and I don’t know will I get another opportunity now,” Bennett said, the inference being that any day at this Tour could prove to be his last.
A week, however, is a long time at the Tour de France. After the tumult and the anxiety of the opening days in the Netherlands and northern France, the sprinter found a more amenable atmosphere – if not exactly more favourable terrain – as the Tour entered the Pyrenees on Tuesday.
“I’m just trying to survive but it’s much easier now, there’s not as much fighting for position and it just feels like a normal peloton to go around in,” Bennett told Cyclingnews in Muret on Friday morning ahead of stage 13. “But it’s still so far from home and that’s in the back of your mind so you don’t want to go too deep but you still want to make it inside the time cut.”
The long flat run-in to the Tour’s tough first summit finish at La Pierre-Saint-Martin may have contributed in part to the dramatic time gaps at the front end of the race, but for those looking simply to survive another day, it was a manageable introduction to life in the high mountains.
“I knew that once I got to the bottom of the climb there was only so much time I could lose and I’d definitely make it inside the time limit,” Bennett said. “When the gruppetto started they were going too hard for me so I just set my watts up and I went within my limits. I was grand then, and I ended up catching the gruppetto and riding in quite comfortably. You could even see that they were a bit tired from going too hard earlier on.”
The third instalment in the Pyrenees, over the Col de Portet-d’Aspet, Col de la Core and Port de Lers en route to a summit finish at Plateau de Beille placed greater demands on the autobus, though for Bennett, at least, the sudden turn in the weather conditions offered welcome respite.
“It was the only time I’ve ever been happy with the rain,” said Bennett, who has, after all, swapped Carrick-on-Suir for Monte Carlo since turning professional. “It was just so hot at the beginning, I couldn’t get enough bottles down. Normally I don’t mind the heat but the rain was nice here, even if it made the descending a bit more dangerous. Everything’s coming together. I’m just trying to stay in the race now.”
Bennett emerged from three days in the Pyrenees in 173rd place overall, two places and thirteen minutes ahead of lanterne rouge Michael Matthews. “I’m close to being last on GC and I know there’s a prize for that but I don’t want to get that,” Bennett laughed. “I don’t want to get it but I’ll probably end up last on GC in the next few days.”
The next intermediate target for the 24-year-old Bennett is reaching the second rest day in Gap. Still eight stages from Paris, he dare not dream of anything more just yet. “I’m not thinking about stages or anything like that,” he said. “There’s maybe one sprint before the Champs-Élysées but I’m gone into survival mode.”