Sam Bennett got up on Sunday morning convinced that a third stage victory on this Giro d'Italia was beyond him. Three weeks of racing – from Israel to the Alps, by way of Sicily and the Zoncolan – had taken their toll on the Irishman. "When I woke up this morning, I had such bad legs, man. I thought I wouldn't be able to sprint," Bennett said after overpowering Elia Viviani in Rome to claim the honours.
The Giro's final stage comprised ten laps of an 11.5km circuit in Rome's centro storico, and was destined to finish in a bunch sprint. By nature, sprinters don't tend to turn down opportunities. Once Bennett pinned a race number on his back and took the start near the Terme di Caracalla, his competitive instincts began to take hold all over again.
A lap into the stage, however, there were murmurs of unrest in the gruppo. Some riders felt that the circuit, which brought them through the Roman Forum, along Via del Corso and across Piazza del Popolo, was too dangerous.
Maglia rosa Chris Froome and his Team Sky teammates, in particular, seemed eager to have the stage neutralised. Bennett and the sprinting fraternity, who had hauled themselves through the Alps these past three days desperately trying to finish inside the time limit behind the GC contenders, were of a rather different opinion.
In the end, it was decreed that the general classification would be taken after the third lap, meaning that Froome, Tom Dumoulin et al were able to amble around Rome for the remainder of the stage, minutes behind Bennett, Elia Viviani et al. It was a bizarre end to a strange Giro.
"They were discussing what they were doing in the race. Sky got their way too easily, in that they got the race neutralised just to suit them," Bennett said. "At the end of the day, we still had to race, so why do they get to go easy? It was equally as dangerous for us."
The ongoing debate over how to proceed could have served as a distraction, but, ultimately, it perhaps served to fuel Bennett's fire – or at least help him ignore the heaviness of his legs.
"I was doing a bit of venting alright," Bennett smiled. "But I'd respect any decision if we all came to that decision together. I was open-minded about it, but with your winner's mentality, you want another opportunity, so if there hadn't been a sprint I would have been extremely disappointed. I was doing a bit of venting, but I'd respect that decision if we all came to that decision together. But I try to take things in my stride and take each situation as it comes."
The situation that eventually arrived here turned out to be ideal for Bennett. After his Bora-Hansgrohe team had helped to shut down the day's break, the Carrick-on-Suir native parked himself on Viviani's wheel ahead of the grandstand sprint on the Via dei Fori Imperiali. Viviani was seeking a fifth stage win on this Giro, but, as in Praia a Mare on stage 7, he provided an inadvertent lead-out for Bennett, who delivered a devastating sprint.
"It was a super-fast final," Bennett said. "I took Viviani's wheel, and then I tried to go late and just wind it up. I was super happy to get it."
Bennett's hat-trick of stage wins on this Giro have served as a confirmation of his longstanding gifts as a sprinter and ought to mark a turning point in his career. His remarkable, 400m-long sprint in Imola in week two was an obvious reflection of his newfound confidence, even if the 27-year-old insisted that he has no desire to vie with Peter Sagan for space in the Tour de France line-up. His next races will instead be the Rund um Köln and the Irish national championships, with the remainder of his 2018 programme yet to be decided.
"Up to this morning, I was only thinking about this stage," Bennett said when asked if he would know like to target stage wins at the Tour. "Of course, I'd love to, but that's Peter's territory, so there's not enough room for the two of us."
Bennett was also, unfortunately, compelled to toe the party line during his post-stage press conference. Asked for his opinion on whether Giro winner Chris Froome should have been in the race at all given his ongoing salbutamol case, a press officer from Bora-Hansgrohe interjected, saying: "We don't talk about other teams. It's about Sam's victory today."
An apologetic Bennett acceded to the order not to answer the question. "I'm under contract not to," he said.
Bora-Hansgrohe's smothering stance is all the more perplexing and disappointing given that Bennett is one of the most articulate and accessible speakers in the peloton. Whether his team realises it or not, his stage wins and his personality have made him one of the break-out stars of this Giro, and he is not shy about engaging with his public.
When Bennett placed last on the Zoncolan stage, for instance, it was because he spent much of the climb performing wheelies at the request of the tifosi. Who knows if it fitted with corporate policy, but Bennett enjoyed the occasion.
"It would be boring for them if I just rode past," Bennett said. "We fuelled each other, it was good for morale. I think they enjoyed it, I enjoyed it. I think it was a bit of fun, to give them something to talk about."
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