The Eiffel Tower, they say, is visible from the top of the final mountain pass of the Tour de France, but Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) didn't have time to admire the metaphorical view as he crested the summit of the Col de Joux Plane in miserable conditions on Saturday afternoon and began to descend towards the finish of stage 20.
More than 34 minutes after Ion Izagirre (Movistar) had claimed stage honours, the gruppetto – with Bennett safely aboard – finally entered the sodden finishing straight in Morzine, drifting across the finish line just as maillot jaune Chris Froome (Sky) was touring the mixed zone behind the podium.
Soigneurs stepped into the road to pick out their riders from the line-up of haunted faces and thousand-yard stares that drifted by. Bennett and his teammate Andreas Schillinger wheeled to a halt just past the finish line to seek directions to their hotel, too tired for elation or even relief.
"It's hard to say what I feel, I'm just a bit fucked at the minute," Bennett told Cyclingnews. "I didn't think I was going to make it today, so I'm happy to finish. Schilli did a great job of helping me and pacing me. It was just a hard day from the beginning."
Cruelly, this Tour has shoehorned its toughest stages into its final days. For four days, the fast men like Bennett must have felt cloistered by Alps, and heavy rain soaked the peloton for much of Saturday afternoon to boot. A day shy of Paris, his Tour remained a quest for survival.
"From the start I had bad legs. I had good legs yesterday but it was a total turnaround today. From the beginning I had nothing. I pushed too hard on the first climb to stay with them. And then I blew on the next climb, got back on. Blew before the third climb, and the gruppetto started there and I just got back in and just tried to stay in the rest of the day," Bennett said.
A faller during the bunch sprint on the opening stage at Utah Beach, Bennett has raced for three weeks with stitches in his right hand and a clamp on his little finger, impediments that have prevented him from taking part in any bunch sprints and saw his Tour become to a struggle simply to remain in the race. The 25-year-old is pragmatic about his prospects of being in the mix on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday evening.
"I'll have to see how I'll feel tomorrow," he said. "But it would be a dream to sprint there and I don't want to let that opportunity pass either."
A year ago, Bennett endured a similarly trying Tour debut, arriving at the race with curtailed preparation, having suffered a knee injury in the build-up. It was hardly surprising that he found himself at the rear of the peloton each day, and was eventually forced to abandon on stage 17, but a feature of his Tour was a penchant for bracing self-criticism.
"I am easier on myself this year but I don't want to feel sorry for myself either. I feel like I need to harden the f--- up," Bennett said at the end of week two this time around.
"It just feels the exact same. For some reason last year, I could go into the red. But this year I just can't push myself now. I don't know why. I'm trying to go harder and I know I can go harder but the body won't let me, I don't know why. I'm after getting a knock, it's just as if it's shut down and I can't get it going again."
Bennett will ride into Paris on Sunday in 175th and last on the general classification, almost five and quarter hours behind Froome, but that misses the entire point of his endeavour these past three weeks. The Tour is not so much a single bike race as a series of intersecting personal battles, and the Irishman has won his.
"I feel a bit of relief," Bennett said on Saturday evening, his voice weary. "I didn't want the Tour to win two years in a row."
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