After two Giro d’Italia and two Tour de France, Sam Bennett (BORA-hansgrohe) is finally completing his Grand Tour 'set' in the Vuelta a España this year, with target number one a possible bunch sprint on Stage 2.
In some ways the pressure is off, Bennett agrees, given that he’s had such an excellent season so far, taking 11 wins, nine of them at WorldTour level.
On the other hand, netting a hat-trick of victories in the Binck Bank Tour last week arguably makes the Irishman the fast man to beat in Spain, particularly after missing out on both Giro and Tour this year, making the Vuelta is naturally a big target for Bennett.
Furthermore, Bennett is also still on the hunt for a contract for 2020, he told Cyclingnews shortly before the Vuelta got underway in Torrevieja, which may well give added importance to his results in cycling’s final Grand Tour of the season.
“What I did in BinckBank was good, but I’m approaching it differently here,” Bennett says. “After that, I suppose I’m the reference point for sprinters in the bunch here. I’ve shown I’m really strong and maybe shown my cards too early. So everybody’s going to be thinking ‘where is Sam at?’ and judging themselves off that. Whereas at Binck Bank I was going solo, there were a lot of trains, and I’ve got used to that because I’ve been forced to go like that.”
However, in Spain Bennett will be operating with a much stronger back-up than usual.
"I’ve got Jempy [Drucker] and Shane [Archbold] here this week, and I’m sure the other guys like Pawel [Poljanski], Felix [Grobschartner] and Gregor [Muhlberger] will be strong before that. So it’s going to be pressure in a different sense. In one way it’s a compliment, but there are a lot of expectations, too.”
The rivals will be of the calibre of Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) and Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick Step).
“Because a lot of the sprint stages are so tough before here in the Vuelta, I’m expecting Luka Mezgec (Mitchelton-Scott) to be one of the big threats. We know he’s on good form and he can climb.”
Sunday’s stage 2 is a tough one, given the biggest geographical barrier between a bunch sprint and the rest of the fastmen is arguably the second category ascent of Puig Llorença at 25 kilometres to go. Averaging a brutal 9.5 per cent for three kilometres, and with one middle segment of 19 per cent, race director Javier Guillén has told local media he expects things to blow apart there: Bennett describes it more simply as “a wall.”
“It depends on how the race goes, though. It’s quite a way to the finish. It’d be nice to get a win early, and I’ll just go in there and see what happens. One day at a time.”
He also knows the first stage route well from multiple training camps in the finish in Calpe, which is another advantage.
As for the weather, which can be extremely hot in this time of year in Spain, Bennett says: “At the moment we’re lucky. There’s a nice breeze coming in these days off the coast. I should be fine, and then hopefully I’ll have adjusted to the heat enough by the time we head inland.”
“My race program before - Ride London, the Euros, Binck Bank, it was a lot colder. The change of temperature can be a shock to the body, but I find it easier to get used to the heat, rather than the cold, so hopefully, that’ll help. And when I’m that strong as I am now, I find it easier too. If I’m not at top fitness, I can’t get used to it.”
Quite apart from the expectations given his recent results, there’s the historical angle, too, given the previous Irish sprinter in the Vuelta a España is also, like Bennett, from the town of Carrick-on-Suir. Sean Kelly not only won the race outright once but also took his biggest haul of Grand Tour stages in Spain - 16 - as well as the Vuelta’s points jersey on four occasions.
“I saw in ProCyclingStats that if you just got the number of wins he got here in your whole career, then it’d be a pretty good career,” Bennett said. “It’s a pretty big deal, but I’ve not done the Vuelta yet, so I have to go for it first! I’m excited to be here in the National Champ’s jersey and I want to represent it the best I can.”
If Kelly’s total of stages is impractical in a single year and even one Grand Tour stage win represents a big success for any sprinter, Bennett is certainly planning on maximizing his chances in the Vuelta this year, in that he’ll be going all the way to Madrid. “I don’t want to come here and not finish,” he says.
“And also I’d like to try for the points jersey, but it’s weird here, it’s normally a climber that gets it. So I’ll have to be nailing it the whole way through. I’ll try and keep on top of that, but I’ll go for stages and if the jersey’s within reach, great, I’ll target it. If not, then it just doesn’t happen this year.”
“Apart from anything else, it’d be good preparation for the Worlds, but I’ve heard a lot of guys saying that after doing the Vuelta your off-season is so close you’re starting at a higher level. So hopefully it’ll help me for next year, too.”
Bennett will be finishing his year after the Worlds and the question of where he will be racing next year will be looming even larger than it already is on his horizon. However, he told Cyclingnews “I’ve nothing, nothing’s signed.”
“It’s mad, I thought I’d have this done months ago, but hopefully it’ll happen soon.”
Regardless of the team, Bennett is sure that the Vuelta represents a stepping-stone en route to a return to the Tour for 2020, which he hasn’t raced since 2016.
“For sure I should be there next year,” he says, “I’m ready to go back.” First though, comes Spain.