As Sam Bennett sat shivering beneath a blanket behind the podium in Imola, it was put to him that the weather on stage 12 of the Giro d'Italia had been particularly suited to an Irishman. Rain, after all, was general all over Emilia-Romagna. "It was freezing," Bennett smiled through chattering teeth. "Maybe the conditions were good for me."
Then again, the conditions that helped to propel Bennett to victory were already in place even before the skies darkened and the first light taps of rain began to fall over the Giro gruppo on Thursday afternoon. After winning his maiden Grand Tour stage in Praia a Mare last Friday, the Bora-Hansgrohe rider set out from Osimo armed with that most impalpable of qualities: confidence.
In a sodden final hour of racing, Bennett rode with considerable assurance. The rugged terrain on the rain-soaked finishing circuit proved too much for Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors), but Bennett never missed a beat. In the final 400 metres, he didn't wait for somebody else to chase down late escapees Matej Mohoric and Carlos Betancur; he went and fetched them himself, then powered to a resounding victory.
"It's hard to say, but maybe I wouldn't have been so firm in my decision-making if I hadn't won a stage already. Maybe I would have hesitated," Bennett said afterwards. "It would have been a different outcome in the final, I think. I was more sure of my decisions. When I decided on something, I just did it, if that makes sense."
Bennett's words on the team bus before the start in Osimo were certainly easily understood. On Tuesday, he had been, by some distance, the quickest sprinter to survive the fragmenting of the peloton in the opening kilometres of stage 10, but Bora-Hansgrohe never quite committed enough to keep the front group together and Bennett ended up winning a sprint for third place.
"I said to the guys, 'Our number one priority today is to make it a sprint,'" Bennett explained. "I said if I had to do the sprint alone, so be it, but it had to be a sprint today. It couldn't be like the last day where we were sprinting for third place, that's for nothing."
Bennett's assurance was obvious, too, on the climb of the Tre Monti, with a little over seven kilometres remaining. Rather than simply follow the wheels, he adopted an aggressive stance, and even briefly accelerated clear of the peloton, with no concerns about sparing his legs for an eventual sprint.
"I just wanted to be sure I was at the front for the descent, because it was raining and sometimes there can be crashes," he said. "I thought it would be better to go to the front and then drop back than have to make up ground afterwards. Then I saw people were sleeping a little bit and I thought I could try to catch them by surprise."
Although his teammates Patrick Konrad and Christoph Pfingsten were prominent in the finale, they were unable to prevent Mohoric and Betancur from slipping clear, and deep into the last kilometre, it looked as though Bennett would again be sprinting for an unwanted consolation prize. Rather than stand on ceremony, however, the Carrick-on-Suir native took matters in hand, catching and passing the two leaders with a seemingly interminable sprint. Danny van Poppel and Niccolo Bonifazio never came within the same postcode of getting back on level terms.
"I went early because the gap still had to be closed," Bennett said. "They were my target, I sprinted towards them, but I didn't think the finish was that far away. I was starting to run out of legs but when I looked back and saw the gap, that gave me more legs."
Bennett's love affair with the Grand Tours had been an unrequited one until this Giro. He endured six top-three finishes on the corsa rosa before finally opening his account last week, while his two Tour de France appearances were blighted by injury. In 2016, Bennett survived an early crash to reach Paris as lanterne rouge. The previous year, he struggled through two weeks of a debut that had been compromised before it started by a knee injury.
Bennett's travails at the rear of the peloton had generated its share of publicity in that trying debut Tour, but he admitted during that race that he had no desire whatsoever to be lauded for his tenacity. "It's on TV worldwide and you want to perform but you're one of the guys they show when they switch to the back of the bunch and you're struggling," Bennett said one morning on that Tour. "I don't really like that."
A sprinter, no matter the circumstances, is hardwired to win.
That is the case for Bennett on this Giro. Victory in Imola brings him to within 22 points of Viviani in the points classification, but, for now, at least, he has no intention of chasing every available point in the battle for the maglia ciclamino. The only sprint that matters, it seems, is the one for the finish line in Nervesa della Battaglia on Friday. His eye will not be drawn by the wayward flickering of other prizes.
"At the moment, I'm just looking at stages. I know we closed the gap a nice bit but if I use up energy in the intermediate sprints and I miss another opportunity to win a stage I'd never forgive myself," Bennett said. "In the last week, if I see that it's still close and the opportunity is there, then I'll make a call. But for now, we've another sprint stage tomorrow and we have to go again."
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