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Sam Bennett now looks like he has the wind at his back one. But, as this piece sets out, the fight back to the top has not been easy (Photo: Elias Rom)

Sam Bennett made things look effortless at the recent Four Day of Dunkirk, winning four stages plus the overall. But in reality a whole lot of work went into getting back on track.

After an early season that hadn’t gone quite to plan – following a 2023 very much in same vein – Bennett was in serious need of some results and nothing short of victories, several of them, would do.

And though the wind is now at his back, and he starts Critérium du Dauphiné on Sunday ahead of a hoped-for return to the Tour de France after a four-year absence, this last period in the Irishman’s career has not been easy.

In this in-depth piece, stickybottle traces the ups and downs for Sam Bennett and how he finally got his sprinting Mojo back in the new surroundings of Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team.

By Shane Stokes

Back in February Sam Bennett was sounding a little frustrated at the UAE Tour. He’d moved to Decathlon Ag2r La Mondiale over the winter and, after three years of missing the Tour de France, had a race programme that would return him to cycling’s biggest event.

Keen to win early, and win often, things hadn’t quite gone to plan.

Bennett found himself out of position in sprints and also lacked the top-end horsepower which would normally keep him in contention even if he started too far back.

On several occasions he would sprint but then sit up before the line, shaking his head with frustration.

Second on a stage of the Tour de la Provence in early February was as close as he got to a win, with a headwind at the finish likely costing him victory.

In the UAE Tour, regarded as one of the most important races for sprinters, two 11th places were his best showing.

“We are just trying to get it to work,” he told stickybottle there, speaking prior to the start of stage six, close to the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum.

“But we’re here more with a GC team, so we’re trying to use the guys up earlier just to get an easier run into around the 5k mark. And then just to try and surf the last bit with Gianluca [Pollefliet]but he’s had a bit of a stomach issue last two days.

“So I’ve been trying to just float around myself, but I can’t even get there, I’m always taking the wrong side, wrong position. I’m gauging it off other years, but then on the days it just seems to be changing. So I’m getting there too late. The sprint is just opening up.

“But there is nothing else I can do. I have to risk it. Because I don’t have the manpower to get me there earlier and just stay there.”

Bennett and his new team had a big learning curve to contend with. He is the first big sprinter with the squad in more than 20 years and there was no experienced leadout train as a result.

It was a big change from the likes of Soudal Quick-Step and Bora-Hansgrohe, which had far more experience in that area.

The issue was compounded by different leadout riders in different races, although he did feel things should improve over time. “It’s hard. I had one set of leadout guys in Provence, a different guy here. It’s going to be a different crowd again in Paris-Nice.

“You need to be with the same guys to get a feel for each other, so that’s automatic. But we’ll get there.”

‘The form is good, the results are not so good’

The issue wasn’t just the leadout train. Bennett is one of the best sprinters in recent years, as evidenced by more than 60 wins. Those include two stages plus the green jersey in the 2020 Tour de France, as well as five stages in the Vuelta a España and three in the Giro d’Italia.

However injury and illness complicated things since June 2021. He suffered a knee injury then and missed that year’s Tour, and indeed several months of racing. The next two seasons were also affected by issues, with a lowered win rate eating into his confidence, as did non-selection for the Tour de France.

Getting back to his best was a priority this year, yet a lot of hard work initially didn’t pay off.

At the start of February his coach Stephen Barrett had described Bennett as being in ‘excellent shape.’ Speaking in advance of his first race, Barrett was excited.

“Sam’s been good. Since finishing the training camp in La Nucia he went back to Monaco. He has been there now for the last few weeks getting some good block of work done,” he told Stickybottle.

“The biggest thing with Sam so far has been his consistency. He’s been consistently training very, very well. He’s missed no days with injuries or illness or sickness so far.”

Bennett too was happy with his sensations.

“The form is there. I can even see how fresh I’m getting over the line,” he said at the UAE Tour. “And also, when I look at the file, I can see how quickly the heart rate is dropping afterwards, and even what it is in the race. The condition is good, I’m just not getting there.”

Things didn’t quite click at the UAE Tour, and didn’t quite click at Paris-Nice. Winner of five stages in the latter race in past, his best placings this time around were fourth and sixth.

So no victory, yet at the same time Bennett had positive sensations.

“The form is pretty good,” he told Stickybottle in mid-March, speaking after that race. “In Paris-Nice I did my best-ever 20 minute power. I am climbing super strong. I am doing some of my best rides in years, in terms of power, but the results aren’t showing that at all.

“It’s a positive, but it’s not what you are looking for. You are looking for the results on paper. But it is a good sign when my engine is so big at the minute. I just need to get the sprint.

“The form is good, the results are not so good,” he added, laughing.

What was the missing piece of the puzzle?

Both Bennett and Barrett were hopeful he’d hit the ground running this year and take an early win. When that didn’t happen, tweaks had to be made and a plan put in place.

The issue? Very good aerobic condition, but a lack of anaerobic power.

“My form is definitely better than last year,” Bennett said. “We just have to do a bit more with the gym work to catch up one that, but the VO2 Max, the threshold, the weight, everything is spot on. It’s just the last piece of the puzzle, you know. My bread and butter is the sprint, and that’s the one thing we have left to get right.

“It’s just unfortunate that it’s going to take time. Also it’s a hard time of year [to do gym work – ed.] You have so many important races, so you can’t get a long block to get all that work in, because it does damage the muscles. It takes a long time to recover until you get a good base with it.”

Barrett agreed that gym work was the key component that was missing.

“That’s exactly it,” he told Stickybottle on March 20th. “It’s something that we discussed long and hard in the last few weeks. He has been working with a strength coach here on the team.

“Now he’s got back into it again. He’s doing three gym sessions a week. He’s had three gym sessions this week before he does Gent Wevelgem at the weekend. It’s kind of the missing link really, making sure he’s getting the load he needs in the gym to be able to complement the work on a bike.

“And once Sam gets that, it should bear some fruit.”

There were encouraging signs in the Région Pays de la Loire Tour, with Bennett taking second and third on stages and eighth overall, and talking about his sprint returning. But it wasn’t until he had a sustained block away from racing after that event that things really started to click.

“He’s back home in Ireland, he’s been training very, very well,” Barrett said at the start of this month. “The goal is Quatre Jours de Dunkirk, which is in just over a week’s time. There are definitely there quite a few stages that will suit a sprinter. We are hopeful that’s where he can get the ball rolling.”

Things duly paid off with a flourish in the French race, with third on the opening stage being followed by his first victory in ten months last Wednesday week, May 15th. He powered home first on stage two, taking over the race lead.

As anticipated for a rider who responds so well to success, that opened the floodgates. He won again on stage three, missed out on victory on stage four when breakaway rider Warre Vangheluwe (Soudal Quick-Step) held him off by approximately one inch, then seized victory on stages five and six.

It was a remarkable sequence of results, and sealed the first general classification win of his pro career.

Bennett’s runaway French success is down to a couple of factors. Things clicking into place with his team was one of those. They policed the breakaways, drove the bunch and, inside the final kilometres, helped him to be as close as possible to where he needed to be.

But it was also down to him too. He put in months of hard work to firstly build a very high aerobic base, and then afterwards to add the anaerobic component too. Once he took one win, others were almost certain to follow.

And that momentum will fuel him as he builds towards the Tour de France, his top season goal.

What’s especially rewarding is that Bennett’s Dunkirk experience saw him emerge from a long period of doubts and uncertainty. He’s a proven winner and it hurt to be coming up short so often.

“It’s frustrating when you know what you’re capable of and you know what you’ve done,” he told Stickybottle at the UAE Tour in February.

“Like if I’d never had the results I’ve had in my career, you’d be like, ‘this is just the way it is.’ But when I know what I can do, and it’s not extracting it, then it’s frustrating.

“But it’s in there. I just have to keep fighting and it will come.”

He kept fighting, and it did.

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