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Sam Bennett now has his first race of 2024 in his legs and we’ve seen his condition, and new lead-out, for the first time. How did it all look? Above, he was just beaten for victory today by Tom Van Asbroeck (Photo: Nathalie Teyssier)

Sam Bennett has emerged from his first stage race of the season – and his first outing with his new team – without a victory. However, there was a bit more to his performance than the fact he comes away from Tour de la Provence empty handed.

At times Bennett rode strongly – though it in one of the weakest fields he will face all season. His ability to make the cut at several key junctures during the race, when the pressure was really on, bodes well.

However, at times he didn’t make the cut. And while there were some good signs for the Irishman, chances were missed and some shortcomings exposed, including within his Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale team, even when it had numbers at the front.

So what conclusions can we draw from the form Bennett displayed, how he coped with the pressure of a hard – often miserable race – and, crucially, how does his team support look on the basis of the last four days?

1 How did Bennett’s form look?

It’s impossible to tell given the strength of the field and the sheer number of abandons, especially today. Any pro race is very hard to win but some are harder than others. And while the last four days – much of it in the rain and wind – were tough, there are far bigger challenges to come for Bennett.

Most of his races this year will be much harder and he will be riding against far better opposition. The Tour de la Provence, with no climbs to speak of, featured just five World Tour teams and the biggest chunk of the field was made up of Continental teams. Those factors mean it would be foolish to draw any significant conclusions from this race, other than the dominance of Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek).

Bennett made the front group today and he climbed well yesterday, though ultimately then missed the key split. His performance today was by far the best and, coming after three stages of racing, that is a positive sign, even if he had to settle for 2nd today. However, we won’t get a handle on Bennett’s early season form until he lines out in a bigger race.

2 What about Bennett’s sprint?

Obviously Sam Bennett has built his glittering career on his sprint. Galloping for the line is what he does best and it’s also all he does. So his ability in the final push for the line is all important. In this race his sprint was mixed.

He did a decent ride in the opening TT with 7th – though the the field was not deep with talent. That was followed by 18th in the bunch sprint on stage 1, missing the split in the front group on stage 2 and placing 2nd on today’s stage 3, which concluded the race.

Bennett was in the mix on stage 1 but ultimately did not feature in the sprint. It looked like when he reached for his legs in the final kilometre they weren’t there, while he also became detached from his lead-out in a wet finale. That was a disappointing result.

On stage 2 he climbed very well; getting over the final climb in the front group, which looked like a good ride. However, when Pedersen attacked through the intermediate sprint point, and others went after him, Bennett did not respond and finished two minutes down. Like the previous day, it was a stage that suited him and the result was a disappointment.

Today was, by far, his best performance. And it is the legs that he showed today – when he was full of racing – that he will hope to build on for the weeks and months ahead. He rode through in the front group in the crosswinds and looked strong doing so.

But for going a little early in the final sprint, he would have won it, though he did have the perfect wheel in Pedersen’s. Just as he looked like he’d take the victory, having put none other than Pedersen to the sword, Tom Van Asbroeck (Israel-Premier Tech) came through late and took an unlikely victory.

In one sense, it was good that Bennett displayed a really competitive sprint after such a hard day. However, Van Asbroeck today won his first for since 2019 and Bennett will not like being beaten by somehow who is not a prolific winner or renowned sprinter. In a better field, several sprinters would have finished ahead of both Van Asbroeck and Bennett. But at least Bennett was competitive after four hours of racing.

3 How did the lead-out do?

The Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale riders did their best for Bennett, but the lead-out looked disjointed. With stronger support – like he had at QuickStep and Bora-hansgrohe – the Irishman would have won today.

It is very difficult to see this team matching the likes of QuiskStep-Soudal, Visa-Lease a Bike, Bora-hansgrohe, Astana Qazaqstan, Lidl Trek, Alpecin-Deceuninck, Lotto-Dstny and others when the trains are fighting for the front in the last 5km of a major race.

Aside from Edvald Boasson Hagen, it is also hard to see where a strong final lead-out will come from within the team; in a season where other big sprinters have very strong lead-outs.

Having said that, it is early in the campaign and several riders in the team may yet gel into a tighter and stronger sprint train that is in evidence now. And hopefully Boasson Hagen might find his grove; maybe even really rise to the challenge and have a fantastic last couple of seasons in the service of Bennett. We can but hope.

4 Conclusion

The most important thing for Bennett in the year ahead, the only question really worth pondering, is whether he can find his condition from that golden period between 2018 and mid way through 2021 when he suffered his injury. If he can do that, he will be able to win, even on a reduced strength lead-out.

On the upside for Bennett, in Provence he rode reasonably well against the clock and also appeared to get stronger through the race; two positives. On the downside, the lead-out support won’t be there this year, meaning he needs strong form and he needs it soon.

He is a confidence rider; one who has tended to win early in his strongest seasons and then, buoyed by confidence, gone on to win more and more. He definitely needs an early win. A victory at UAE Tour the week after next would really do the job.

The sprint field will be much deeper in UAE than it was in Provence. However, the four days of racing he now has in his legs, and the time spent in his new team environment, will hopefully mean his condition will have moved up a notch for UAE.

Bennett has won big before – many, many times – and at 33 years, he should still have some good seasons in him.

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