Saturday’s opening stage of the Tour de France in Nice has been designed for the sprinters, with the sport’s fastest men also given an high-stakes opportunity to fight for the first yellow jersey of the race.
Sam Bennett is among the leading favourites for victory on stage 1, along with Caleb Ewan, Elia Viviani, six-time green jersey winner Peter Sagan and newly crowned European champion Giacomo Nizzolo. All will be targeting the double win of the first stage victory and the maillot jaune.
Ewan and Viviani won Tour de France stages last year, while Bennett is arguably under the most pressure as Deceuninck-QuickStep's designated sprinter. Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Fernando Gaviria and Elia Viviani have won Tour de France stages for the Belgian team in the past, and team manager Patrick Lefevere hopes his latest sprint signing can continue their dynasty.
"I don't want to be the first sprinter in QuickStep's history who can't win in the Tour. That's the pressure I feel," Bennett admitted when Deceuninck-QuickStep confirmed their race plan of targeting stages rather than the overall classification with Julian Alaphilippe.
The current Irish national champion has won three stages at the Giro d'Italia and two at the Vuelta a Vuelta. He rode the Tour de France in 2015 and 2016 when with the nascent Bora-Hansgrohe team but failed to make an impact, suffering with injury and illness.
"It's mad, because when I went into those other Grand Tours I was a lot more relaxed," Bennett said.
"For some reason here, it really feels like my whole career has been a build-up to this moment and this opportunity, and I feel quite a bit of pressure in that sense."
"Looking back to the rider I was then [in 2015 and 2016], I have to admit that I was not able to win a stage then, not even without all that bad luck. I was good enough to sprint to between fifth and tenth place. Today I'm a much better rider. This year it has to happen."
Bennett is often self-doubting and modest out of the saddle but is competitive and hungry for success. He's trying to turn the pressure of performing over the next three weeks into positive motivation.
"It would mean a lot to get a stage win here. It would settle me as a rider and make me a lot more confident," he said.
"I think you just have to accept there is pressure, that's part of the moment. I suppose when you have that pressure it means that it really means something to you, so you just have to embrace it."
Bennett lives in Monaco, just down the coast from Nice and so knows the roads of the opening stages well. The 156km stage 1 heads into the Var valley countryside north of Nice for three loops before the expected sprint on the Promenade des Anglais.
There are three ascents of the 5.1 per cent Côte de Rimiez, with the third after kilometre 97 before two other lesser climbs the descending and fast return to Nice. The road turns flat for the final 30km, giving the sprinter's teams time and road to sweep any breakaway.
The wildcard of the end of summer weather
The only wildcard is the end of summer weather on the Cote d'Azur. Thunderstorms are expected on Saturday. They could cause havoc on the climbs or in the fight for position before the Promenade des Anglais sprint or come after the finish.
Bennett can count on the support of the full Deceuninck-QuickStep team, the top lead-out train in the world including final man Michael Mørkøv. That is reassuring for the Irishman but does not ease the expectation.
"The first day is possibly a sprint but at the same time it might be a really hard day. You have to stay open minded and survive as long as possible," he warned.
Whoever wins in Nice on Saturday is unlikely to remain in yellow for more than 24 hours because Sunday's hilly stage around Nice includes 4000 metres of climbing and ends with the legendary Paris-Nice climb of the Col d'Eze and a fast descent to the finish line.
Bennett will get his chance on Saturday and then Julian Alaphilippe will take over. The Frenchman won two stages last year and wore the yellow jersey for two weeks before finishing fifth overall. He does not have the same form this year but does not seem to feel the pressure and expectation that cold slow Bennett.
"He's a guy that always plays it down and then comes out on fire," Bennett said of Alaphilippe.
"But whenever it's someone's opportunity we always go all-in. I wouldn't be surprised if he took yellow. It will be very hard to repeat what he did last year but anything is possible with him."
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