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Sam Bennett was in demand with the autograph hunters at Critérium du Dauphiné but can he be a crowd favourite at at the Tour next month? (Photo: Jan de Meuleneir-PN-Cor Vos)

With the dust now settled on Critérium du Dauphiné – won, just about, by Primož Roglič (Bora-hansgrohe) – it is well worth assessing what the race likely means for Ireland’s Sam Bennett and Darren Rafferty.

Bennett (Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale) went into the event looking at potentially two stages where he could aim for a victory, though a bad crash and stage cancellation took one of those opportunities away.

For Rafferty (EF Education-EasyPost), the opportunity to go on the attack presented itself after his team was trimmed right back with riders abandoning. And when that chance to get up the road came his way he grabbed it with both hands.

Let’s have a look in detail at what the performances of both Irish riders meant for them – at this stage of the season and at this point in their careers.

Sam Bennett

While stage 1 and stage 5 always looked like the best chances for a sprint finish that Bennett might contest, obviously that second opportunity did not come about when the fifth stage was cancelled due to the crashes about 20km from the finish.

So Bennett’s sole chance came on the opening stage, where he finished 2nd to Mads Pedersen (Lidl Trek). On paper that seems like a more than decent outcome. In reality, Bennett and Pedersen were the only two big name sprinters in the field and the Dane comfortable took that win over the Irishman.

Indeed, on the strength of the Dauphiné – though it was just one sprint, to be fair – Bennett will need to step up to beat the Dane – never mind the even faster riders – in the next few weeks when it matters most.

At the upcoming Tour de France, Pedersen and Bennett will perhaps not be among the very fastest, compared to riders like Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Tim Merlier (Soudal-QuickStep) and the other usual suspects.

Having said that, Bennett has beaten all-comers before and if his sprinting form continues to rise, all bets are off – in the best possible way for the Irishman.

But the feeling for most people is that, in the battle between the fastest men on the pure sprinters’ stages, there may be a few riders ahead of Bennett, and Pedersen. And that means they may see their best chances of a stage win on more complicated stages; perhaps with technical finals or with some lumps and bumps that jettison their rivals.

And that brings into focus what was perhaps the most promising feature of Bennett’s Dauphiné; his climbing. That was especially notable on stage 7. He was still in the bunch at the base of the penultimate climb – after the field had already negotiated two cat 1 ascents.

And though he eventually slipped out the back with just over 40km to go, he lasted much longer than many would have expected. That could be a sign that the general racing condition Bennett had in his pomp, when he was a better climber than almost all of the other sprinters, could be returning. The last week will only further improve Bennett’s general condition.

That would be vital in the Tour; not only to be in contention in reduced bunch sprints but also to simply absorb the impact of the repeated climbs over a three-week race, thus increasing his chances of sprint wins deeper into the event.

In short, Bennett’s sprint against Pedersen at the Dauphiné was perhaps less promising than it looked. But his climbing later in the race, and the fact he was among the final finishers, were both very good signs as the biggest race of the year is now just a few weeks away.

Darren Rafferty

There were nothing but positives for Rafferty to take away from the Dauphiné. He rode very well in the early part of the race, including in the stage 4 TT, and was 22nd overall after that test. While he was among the many fallers in the major spills that forced the cancellation of racing the next day, he dusted himself down and continued in the race.

And when Neilson Powless, EF Education-EasyPost’s GC rider, was forced out, Rafferty began trying to get up the road in the breakaways. He succeeded in those efforts on the penultimate stage, when he joined the attack that continued for 135km.

He was putting efforts in from very early in the stage and then managed to make the first group of five that eventually went on to form half of the day’s main breakaway. When that group split at the business end of the day on the last climb, he again made the front half.

And though he was mowed down by the yellow jersey group 5km from the finish, it was a great performance by the Irishman. It’s easy to forget he’s still only 20-years-old and in his neo pro season. But he is riding very convincingly; also having looked strong in the latter stages of the recent Tour de Romandie.

During the Dauphiné he also spoke of the race being an eye-opener as it was such a major event with several Tour de France contenders present. But, still, he was not afraid to get out there and race, and to do so from the gun a week deep into such a big World Tour stage race.

That he is getting these opportunities now, and looking like he is further developing with every month that passes, only seems to serve as confirmation he picked the right team to turn pro with.

By the end of this season, and into the next, he should have moved up another level again, and may take some big results in the process. Rafferty is bubbling very strongly just under the radar right now. He’s had some very strong results already this season, but a really big one is just around the corner.

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