Sam Bennett is back at Bora-Hansgrohe this season following a two-year spell with QuickStep-AlphaVinyl, and despite a disintegrating relationship with Belgian team boss Patrick Lefevere last summer, the Irishman has said that his time at the team was "great".
31-year-old Bennett lined up at the Classic Brugge-De Panne on Wednesday in his new colours and with his new lead-out train as he seeks to defend his title at the Belgian Classic after a slow start to 2022 due to illness and a lack of racing fitness and sprint power. His win there last year was among 14 he took with QuickStep, a particularly fruitful period of his career despite the ending.
"They were definitely good years," Bennett told Het Nieuwsblad (opens in new tab), determined not to answer questions about Lefevere and his bitter divorce from the team.
"But I wasn't as good as I could have been. I benefited from the 'QuickStep effect'. The team is so strong, and when I won the green jersey they really pulled me through the Tour de France.
"They were great years at QuickStep, and I learned a lot about myself. In my sprint I did well, but I had the feeling that my engine was not as big as before. I want to get back to that now."
Bennett, who has yet to win in 2022 but scored two podium finishes at the UAE Tour, said that his power output of 1,200 watts [around 200-300 short of a WorldTour sprinters' maximum] was what held him back at the WorldTour opener.
He gave full credit to his new lead-out of Ryan Mullen, Danny van Poppel, and Shane Archbold for his early-season sprint placings.
"It clicked right away with them in the UAE Tour," he said. "Four times out of four they dropped me off for the sprint. I finished second and third with a sprint of 1,200 watts, that's all I had in me.
"That says everything about the quality of the lead out. It's no surprise because I already know those riders very well. The team also took a good look at their data when I transferred to see if they would be able to handle that lead-out role.
"In my last year at Bora-Hansgrohe, I felt extremely strong - I had super legs. That's where I want to get to again now," he added.
One of Bennett's major goals for the 2022 season will be a return to the Tour de France as he looks to add to the green jersey and two stage wins he took in 2020. His rivals are likely to be numerous and look set to include Jumbo-Visma's all-round star Wout van Aert.
Bennett openly admires Van Aert, who has already won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad plus a time trial and the green jersey at Paris-Nice, noting that he is still to study the route of the Tour to find the places where he could gain points on the versatile Belgian.
"Wout is amazing. How he rides is just unreal," Bennett said.
"That doesn't mean I won't try to beat him in the Tour, though. Although sometimes I wonder how I am going to do that. In Paris-Nice every sprint was on top of a climb – the intermediate sprints were like the mountain classification...
"I still have to study the route where I can take points on Wout and where I can't. But I'm ready to take on the challenge. I think I have a good chance to win the green jersey again. That's the advantage of all those months without a race: I have a lot of mental freshness."
Those four months away from racing in the middle of last season, where Bennett was suffering from a knee injury as Lefevere belittled him in the media, haven't blunted Bennett's desire to race.
"I became a father, and have a fantastic family," he said. "I still saw my life evolve in a positive way. Those months without a bike made me fall in love with the sport again. Not that this feeling was completely gone, but it had become like a job. Sometimes you only fully appreciate something again the moment it's gone.
"It's what I missed the most in the months without a bike. It was a great feeling to become a father, but I did miss the adrenaline rush you get when you take a descent at 120kph in lycra.
"Paris-Nice was total chaos at times. But I loved it. I look forward to the chaos, even that of a race like De Panne."
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Daniel Ostanek is production editor at Cyclingnews, having joined in 2017 as a freelance contributor and later being hired as staff writer. Before Cyclingnews, he was published in numerous publications around the cycling world, including Procycling, CyclingWeekly, CyclingTips, Cyclist, and Rouleur, among others. As well as reporting and writing news and features, Daniel runs the 'How to watch' content throughout the season.
Daniel has reported from the world's top races, including the Tour de France, and has interviewed a number of the sport's biggest stars, including Egan Bernal, Wout van Aert, Remco Evenepoel, Mark Cavendish, and Anna van der Breggen. Daniel rides a 2002 Landbouwkrediet Colnago C40 and his favourite races are Strade Bianche and the Vuelta a España.