If Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) didn't have bad luck, then he wouldn't have any luck at all. Injury and heavy crashes turned his first two Grand Tour appearances into grim battles for survival, and the Irishman must have had a sinking sense of déjà vu when he fell ill on the evening of the 2017 Giro d'Italia's opening stage in Olbia.
Bennett lost three kilograms in one night and cut a wan figure as he struggled through the following two stages in Sardinia. The transfer to Sicily and the consequent early rest day came as something of a blessing, but although he placed third in the bunch sprint in Messina on stage 5, Bennett is still suffering the effects of his illness.
"Riding up climbs is just killing me now whereas before I had a great level," Bennett said. "It's frustrating. I did everything right and I just put so much into it, so for that to happen ... I can do nothing and I promised the team I'd be good. I can't do anything, and I didn't really have the luck."
On Wednesday, Bennett did all that he could in the most trying of circumstances, as stage 1 winner Lukas Pöstlberger and Rudiger Selig provided the lead-out in a typically chaotic finale. They deposited Bennett on the front with a shade over 200 metres to go, but he spent a fraction too long in the wind, and was passed by stage winner Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) and Jakub Mareczko (Wilier-Triestina) in the dying metres.
"There's nothing more I could have done more today," Bennett said. "Maybe I could have gone inside 200 metres to go but I can't ask for a better lead-out than that, the boys did a super job. I was put into the wind a little bit by Gaviria's teammates so I had to kick a bit hard to get onto Rudy's wheel but they did a great job and led me out perfectly, but with that wind…"
Many sprinters are all but unapproachable in the aftermath of a narrow defeat, but Bennett, polite to a fault, is not among them. He was leaning against the side of the Bora-Hansgrohe bus as he spoke to reporters, and made sure to extend a hand and offer a word of thanks to each of his teammates as they trudged past to climb aboard.
From his youthful victory at Clara as a teenager at the 2009 An Post Rás and through much of his development on the An Post team of his fellow Carrick-on-Suir man Sean Kelly, Bennett tended to fend for himself in sprints. In recent seasons at Bora, however, a train has gradually built up around him, and he rewarded that faith with his first WorldTour win at Paris-Nice earlier this season.
"I haven't had a lot of things go right for me the last few years but now everything is going really well on the team," Bennett said. "A lot has changed, the backing and the support is there on the team. In the past I was killing myself and not getting the results but now it's all coming together really coming well."
Everything, that is, except for Bennett's fortune in Grand Tours. As well as struggling on the climbs, the 26-year-old's power output in the sprints has been curtailed by his illness. He is, for all intents and purposes, sprinting with the hand brake on. To place third in such circumstances was a victory of sorts, even if it hardly feels that way for a man who arrived at this Giro with the aspiration – or perhaps the expectation – of landing a stage win.
"I'm not hitting peak numbers and even if I just hold a high power and try sprinting on that, it's not really there," Bennett said. "If I had the legs I had before I got sick, then I'd be competing for wins, I think. I'm trying to come back but it's just not there yet."
The terrible beauty of three-week tours is that they provide repeated opportunities to dream it up all over again. Throughout his torrid Tours de France of 2015 and 2016, Bennett held out hope that he might recover sufficiently to at least compete in a bunch sprint. There are still opportunities ahead for the fast men as the Giro reaches Italy's deep south, but for now at least, Bennett is not given to dwelling on precisely when they might arrive.
"At this moment, I'm just trying to survive. If I look at the courses, I just stress myself out," Bennett admitted. "It just depends on the legs. When the legs are good, there are going to be more opportunities for sure. But I felt worse today than yesterday."
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