Sam Bennett: A weight is off my shoulders now

Happiness is a lost train of thought. Sam Bennett's relief at landing his first win on a Grand Tour was palpable from the guttural cry as he punched the air at the finish of stage 7 of the Giro d'Italia in Praia a Mare. The Irishman's contentment was clear a little under an hour later, as he took a seat in the press room and looked to put words on a breakthrough triumph.

"I feel like I'm going to sleep like a baby tonight. The most pressure comes from myself. I saw on the first stages the power I could produce, so it was just about keeping the faith and having patience. Even in the final today, when you're so far back with 5k to go, you can panic and go too early but it was just about waiting…" Bennett said, and then trailed off, his features creasing into an apologetic smile. "I'm after rambling on now and I've forgotten your question…"

Bennett's disappointment at placing third behind Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) in Tel Aviv and Eilat at the weekend was obvious, but after that second defeat in Israel, he resolved to approach the next sprint from the Italian's wheel. Easier said than done, but Bennett proved as good as his word at the next opportunity in Calabria.

As the gruppo hurtled along the Lungomare Francesco Sirimarco, Bennett was planted resolutely behind Viviani, and he carefully bided his time behind the maglia ciclamino until the final 100 metres, before unfolding a crisp sprint and slapping it on the counter. His turn at last.

"I just had to get that wheel, and I needed a bit of patience as well. I had to freewheel for a moment at one point because I knew it was just a bit too early. When the time was right I really took it up," Bennett said.

"I think the hardest thing today was to have patience. I think Quick-Step left it too late. I saw them looking back and checking me, maybe trying to get me to panic and go early again. I kept my cool and it paid off. I feel more relaxed, just a weight is off my shoulders now."

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Bennett's quality as a sprinter has been apparent since his teenage years in Carrick-on-Suir, and he delivered his first formal calling card on the 2009 Rás – Ireland's national tour – when, just a few months out of the junior ranks, he turned heads with a thundering sprint victory in Clara. That win in County Offaly marked Bennett out the coming man of Irish cycling, but his path to the big leagues was a tortuous one.

A bout of swine flu and a heavy training crash blighted his time at VC La Pomme in Marseille, while a proposed spell as a stagiaire with FDJ fell through due to knee problems, but Bennett found a home on the An Post team of his fellow Carrick man Sean Kelly for the 2011 campaign. A stage win on the 2013 Tour of Britain helped to secure a move to NetApp-Endura the following year, and Bennett became a mainstay of the team as it evolved to Bora-Hansgrohe and moved up to WorldTour level.

Although Bennett had clocked up 22 sprint wins as a professional before this Giro, including Paris-Bourges and a stage of Paris-Nice, there was one glaring hole on his resume. Being a sprinter is one thing; being a sprinter with a Grand Tour stage win to one's name is something else altogether.

"Even within the team, this win is important to give them confidence that the guy they're working for is capable of winning," Bennett said. "So not only will it give me confidence, it will the team confidence in me, and it will also give us more respect in the bunch sprints. I also feel that if you get a little bit more respect in the peloton, especially in a bunch sprint, it goes a long way."

The signing of Peter Sagan at the beginning of last season had not only altered Bennett's status on Bora-Hansgrohe but altered the entire complexion of the team. A popular figure among his lead-out train but prone to lacerating self-criticism, one wondered if Bennett would feel inhibited by the presence of a new figurehead, but he adapted quickly to the new arrival.

"When I first heard he was coming to the team, I was nervous because I thought I'd have less opportunities but in fact, it gave me more opportunities, because the team stepped up to WorldTour and did more races," Bennett said. "You can't be at every race and we need more than one sprinter. There's still space for me on the team. The Giro is a special race for me, I prefer the Giro to the Tour de France so for me it's perfect."

For a time, however, it seemed as if Bennett's affection for the Giro was destined not to be reciprocated. Over the past two years, he endured a maddening sequence of near misses – six top-three finishes in bunch sprints – at the corsa rosa before becoming the fourth Irishman to win a stage after Shay Elliott in 1960, Martin Earley in 1986 and Stephen Roche in 1987.

"It's my first Grand Tour stage win," Bennett said and smiled again. "It felt like it took forever." Still only 27 years of age, there's time for more.

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