Next man up: Sam Bennett steps into sprint role at Deceuninck-QuickStep
Tom Steels on Irishman following Cavendish, Kittel, Gaviria and Viviani as team's top sprinter
When it comes to signing a sprinter, it's perhaps best not to overcomplicate things. At least, every time a berth opens for a finisher on the Deceuninck-QuickStep roster, the team’s recruitment policy is straightforward: bring in the quickest man available.
After a delay while he extricated himself from Bora-Hansgrohe, Sam Bennett arrives at a squad that has already won 10 bunch sprints in the past five Tours de France through four sprinters of differing characteristics. Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Fernando Gaviria and Elia Viviani all came, won and went, and now the Irish road race champion will be expected to fulfil the same brief.
It puts one in mind of Juventus' transfer activity in the late 1990s, where a succession of centre forwards of varying styles – Vialli, Vieri, Inzaghi and Trezeguet – were successfully integrated into a team that looked as though it might carry on collecting titles regardless of who wore the number 9 shirt.
Deceuninck-QuickStep directeur sportif Tom Steels, winner of nine Tour stages in his time as a rider, believes that Bennett offers the team something slightly different to the fast men who have gone before him.
"The thing is with Sam is that he's less vulnerable, I think, on hard courses," Steels told Cyclingnews. "That's something that is a little bit new. If Cavendish was really good, he could climb quite well, but with Sam it's a completely different level. He really can climb, and if it's necessary he can really pass hard climbs, which means that you have more opportunities to control the race."
There is a difference, however, between observing a sprinter on another team and working with him on a day-to-day basis. Steels and Deceuninck-QuickStep already have a firm idea of Bennett's physical capabilities, but the opening weeks of the season, starting with the Tour Down Under, are partly about figuring out how best to deploy them.
"He can win on the flat and he can also win slightly uphill, but it's also a little bit of a discovery in the beginning of the year, to find the right match with the other riders," Steels said.
"It's also going to be a little bit new for him, I think, to get a lead-out that is going to be consistent, and to have a full team working for him. We need to get the consistency and then see how he goes. Does he win more if you really give him a lead-out to put him alone with 200 or 250m to go, or is it better to come a little bit more from the back and give him the room to accelerate from behind?"
Unlike in football, where a striker might ordinarily be expected to adjust to his team's tactics, a freshly signed sprinter has rather more of a say in how his new squad should deliver him to the finish line. Over the years, Deceuninck-QuickStep's lead-out train has successfully adapted to service the explosivity of Cavendish and the power of Kittel, and it will be recalibrated once again in the first part of the campaign to suit Bennett's needs.
Shane Archbold has followed Bennett from Bora-Hansgrohe to help smooth the transition, while the Irishman will be accompanied by Iljo Keisse and the team's master lead-out man Michael Mørkøv when he makes his debut for Deceuninck-QuickStep at the Tour Down Under.
"Usually, you adapt to the sprinter because he's the guy who has to win," Steels said. "But what he asks for has to be logical. We have a lot of lead-out men who have already a few years' experience working with a sprinter, so, in the beginning, maybe the sprinter just says, 'You're the lead-out, you bring me there, and we'll see.' And then, step by step, you finetune it.
"And, of course, it is up to Sam to find his way, to cope with the pressure and with the need to win. There is only one spot that counts for a sprinter; the second spot is not good enough. But he will manage."
Tour de France
After claiming his 13th and final win of 2019 with a long, long sprint at Oviedo on the Vuelta a España, Bennett noted that VO2 max testing had previously suggested he didn't possess the physiology of a pure sprinter.
"But I just wanted to be a sprinter, so I probably forced myself to be something that I'm not," Bennett said.
Then again, bike races don't take place in a vacuum. A young Cavendish, after all, was once almost rejected by the British Cycling Academy due to his performances on a stationary bike, and Steels has seen enough of Bennett's turn of pace to recognise his aptitude as a sprinter.
"He still has that acceleration that you need to be a top sprinter," Steels said. "You see it mostly when he's been a little bit behind and then had to go. You see how fast he could recover the distance after being out of position, so he has the speed and the power to be at the top."
As at Bora-Hansgrohe, where he had Pascal Ackermann and Peter Sagan for company, Bennett will have to divide the calendar with two other sprinters, even if it seems clear that he is number one on a depth chart that also includes Fabio Jakobsen and Alvaro Hodeg. Jakobsen, who beat Bennett in Madrid on the final day of the Vuelta, will be Deceuninck-QuickStep's sprinter at the Giro d'Italia, while Bennett has free rein at the Tour de France.
It is all rather different to Steels' experience at Mapei in the 1990s, where he and Jan Svorada were both sent to the 1998 Tour. The experiment worked, in that Steels opened his account in Dublin on stage 1 and Svorada landed victory in Cork the next day, although it was not without its complications.
"There was respect between us both, but we did many sprints where we said, 'You take left, I take right, and we'll see where we end up.' It wasn't an ideal situation, and I think, nowadays, it's a scenario that's very difficult to repeat," Steels said.
"Now we have three top sprinters, and I think you cope by giving them a programme that allows them to maintain their value and win races. You also look at the race routes, and I think this year the Tour is quite hard for a sprinter – but not for a guy like Sam who will cope with it and get his opportunities."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.