The difficulty of the cobbled Classics can’t really be overstated, but if there were any doubt, Sam Bennett provided a rather graphic illustration after the final ascent of the Kemmelberg at Gent-Wevelgem.
By that point, the Irishman had been the lone Deceuninck-QuickStep rider in the select front group for almost 100 miles, surviving crosswinds, cobbles, hills and unpaved roads to remain among the last men standing come final haul up the Kemmelberg.
Bennett was briefly distanced by the forcing of Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) and eventual winner Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) on the steepest portion of the climb, but he dragged himself back into the front group of nine over the other side.
With a little over 30km remaining, Bennett was within striking distance of Gent-Wevelgem victory, but that brutal effort took an obvious toll. As the road levelled out after the descent, Bennett eased to the rear of the break to throw up repeatedly.
He managed to re-join the fray and even contribute some cursory turns on the front, but he knew he was on borrowed time. He was finally shaken loose from the break when Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) attacked with 16km to go.
“We went hard over the Kemmel the last time and I threw up my food, so after a little while, I had no food and I had a hunger flat, so I went from one extreme to another,” said Bennett. “The legs blew up and I just had nothing. I couldn’t do anymore. I just had a hunger flat. I felt dizzy and I felt faint, and I had nothing left.
“I was trying to hold it down a lot, because I knew if I held it down long enough, I’d be ok, but it just wouldn’t stay down.”
Bennett, who has long had a tendency towards bracing self-assessment, reckoned afterwards that he had made mistakes with his feeding during the race.
“I just ate too much, because I was trying to fuel as much as possible,” he said. “I had to go so deep the last time up the Kemmel. There was too much in my stomach, and I couldn’t hold down my food. It was just my own fault. I tried to refuel because it’s a really long race and I over-ate.
“You’re always told to eat and drink, so I just kept forcing it down. I just tried to do the best I possibly could, but I did something wrong.”
Bennett did precious little else wrong during the race, which proved a breathless affair after the peloton was splintered into echelons after barely 60km. Remarkably, he was the only Deceuninck-QuickStep rider to make that selection of 21 riders. Asked if he was surprised at that scenario, Bennet said: “A little bit, but it’s just way the echelons are, I was on the wheels.
"We just tried to make sure we were always in the first group. Then it was just about surviving for me, always being in the right position and fighting on the Kemmelberg. I was just racing the race.”
Zdenek Štybar and Yves Lampaert’s efforts to bridge across came to nothing, leaving Bennett with the lone burden of delivering victory. He was to the fore at every selection, hitting the Kemmelberg for the final time in a front group of nine riders composed largely of fast finishers, with Michael Matthews, Giacomo Nizzolo, Matteo Trentin, Danny van Poppel, Sonny Colbrelli and Van Aert all aboard.
“I thought once I survived that, I’d make it to the finish but then when all my food was out of my stomach, it was only a matter of minutes before I had no energy left in the legs,” said Bennett.
After Bennett was distanced from the front group, he tried to summon up the strength to help Lampaert’s forlorn pursuit, but by that point, there was nothing to be done. He made it to Wevelgem in 55th place, 4:40 down on Van Aert and his erstwhile companions in the break.
The Classics are a brutal kind of a business. But then, Bennett, winner of the Classic Brugge-De Panne in midweek, knew the terms coming in and accepted the verdict of the road afterwards.
“When I blow up there’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I thought I was doing the right thing during the race, and I did everything I could do.”
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