Sam Bennett’s long path back to what he hopes will be the top of his game reaches a new milestone on Friday when he begins the Vuelta a España, his first Grand Tour in two years. The objective, he told reporters, is to “find myself and get those wins.”
The Bora-Hansgrohe sprinter has had anything but an easy last twelve months, with a knee injury wrecking the second half of his 2021 season, which ended with a turbulent exit from QuickStep.
This year there has been just one win, though it was a notable one, at Eschborn-Frankfurt. Bennett was not selected for the Tour de France, however, as Bora-Hansgrohe placed a greater emphasis on the general classification. Taking part in the Vuelta thus became the last big chance for Bennett to make his mark on the season.
That opportunity was confirmed after the Tour de Pologne, and a fifth place in the recent European Championships has shown the 31-year-old’s form “is coming”, as he recognised in a press conference on Wednesday morning.
Bennett is riding for a team with multiple goals on this Vuelta, including the GC, but the two flat opening road stages in Holland present two clear opportunities for bunch sprints, and the Irishman will hope to make an impact even before the race makes the long transfer south on Monday.
Over the three weeks, Bennett will be aiming to succeed Sean Kelly as Ireland’s most recent winner of the Vuelta’s points jersey, which Kelly took for a fourth time in nine editions back in 1988. But the top priority is a stage.
“It would be really nice to get a stage here, although first of all we’ve got the team time trial, and the very first thing is not to let the team down there. You probably can’t win the Vuelta that day, but you can definitely lose it,” Bennett said.
“So I’ll be 100 percent committed there, make sure we do a solid TTT, and then it’ll be onto my own goals.
“I definitely would like to get a stage here and really fight for the points jersey. But with those goals in mind, it’s an opportunity for me to find my level again. I can see the form is coming, but it’s been two years since my last Grand Tour and with the time I’ve missed the last two years, you kind of feel that. So I [just want to] find myself in this race again and get those wins.”
Bennett’s track record in the Vuelta is a good one, with two stages in 2019, and one from 2020. But that means heightened expectation, too. At 31, and with eight Grand Tour stage victories under his belt, Bennett acknowledged that the pressure to add another stage “is there”, partly because of his own history.
“Since 2018 whenever I’ve done a Grand Tour, I’ve always won at least one stage and I’d like to keep that pattern, even though I suppose that’s more pressure for myself, rather than external pressure,” he said.
Bennett has been doing heat training to try to prepare properly for what he expects to be some blisteringly warm temperatures in southern Spain. Given that the Tour de Pologne was not raced in the warmest conditions this year, he trained at his Monaco base using winter clothing to get the body temperature up and acclimatise.
“Now,” he said with a wry grin, “I just have to try and survive it. But I’ve been a pro for many years now, I’ve done a lot of hot races, I should be ok.”
On the other hand, the light will be different on this Vuelta compared to Bennett’s last appearance in the pandemic-delayed edition of 2020, when the sun’s low position in the sky, somewhat alarmingly, added to the difficulty of fraught finales. “I couldn’t see where my front wheel was in relation to other people’s back wheels,” Bennett said.
The usual August slot is a better one for Bennett and the rest of the sprinters, then, and he will also be able to rely on a solid lead-out, with Ryan Mullen, Danny van Poppel and Jonas Koch all included in the Bora-Hansgrohe squad here.
“One of the hardest things for me here is that I have such an amazing opportunity with the race programme, the team, the bikes and the riders around me,” Bennett said. “And the fact I haven’t felt 100 percent ready to take that opportunity…you don’t want to be ready to take that opportunity when that opportunity’s gone.
“But I’m delighted to have that, going into this race, it gives me confidence. I know the guys can get me there, I just hope I can finish the job off, if I’m honest. I think having that support makes a job a lot easier, if you’re in that right position, the chances are that one will fall for you. In that sense, it [sprinting] is a numbers game.”
But for a sprinter, rather than playing the game it’s hitting the jackpot that counts, and in Bennett’s case this September, arguably even more so than usual.
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