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The Sam Bennett-Stephen Barrett partnership may have put the TT effort to one side of late to focus on the main business, but Bennett gave a very good indication of his condition against the watch yesterday (Photo: Romain Perez Canales-Decathlon Ag2r La Mondiale)

By Shane Stokes

It is measure of Sam Bennett’s hunger for success this year that he reacted to a very solid seventh place in the prologue of the Tour de la Provence by wondering where he could have made up time and actually won the contest.

The Carrick-on-Suir rider is far from a TT specialist, but with the opening day of the French stage race held on a flat, fast 5km course, and with his ambition heightened by a frustrating 2023 plus a move to a new team, he wanted to prove a point in his season debut.

Bennett and his coach Stephen Barrett set out a watts target for the TT they believed may win the event and while the Carrick-on-Suir man hit it, Mads Pedersen (Lidl Trek) went 12 seconds faster. It was also Bennett’s first time on his new team’s TT bike, which was the result of a deliberate focus on other things in recent months.

“I spoke to him last night and he asked me a question ‘what do we need to do to win?’” his coach, Barrett, told stickybottle after the opening stage. “I gave him a number and he actually hit that number, but on the day Mads Pedersen was just better. Today was it was a perfect day for Mads.

“Sam said to me afterwards, ‘What did I do wrong? What could I have done to win?’ The simple answer is we should have spent more time on it.

“We made a very clear decision in the last few months that for him with the new bike, the new pedals, new shoes, a new saddle and new cleats, we had to spend time to make sure everything was perfect for him. So we kind of moved the TT a bit to the side.”

Bennett signed for Decathlon Ag2r La Mondiale last year, joining the team over the winter. The deal see him end a long relationship with the Specialized brand and with the Irish sprinter now using Decathlon’s Van Rysel marque of products.

That explains the big adjustment period getting used to the new equipment setup, and in turn to his lack of time on the TT machine.

Bennett was fully committed during the test, looking focussed as he raced out of the start gate in Marseilles and lugging a huge gear around for the duration of the prologue. Cutting corners in a bid to eke out time, he completed the course at an average speed of over 54.2km per hour.

That gave him a time 12 seconds behind that of former world champion Pedersen. He was just two seconds off third. Barrett said he took encouragement from the seventh place.

“Today was very good, very, very good,” he said. “It was a bit of a relief just to see where he’s at, but you also a bit of regret in the sense that we never really put much work into TT in the last few weeks. We just had to spend time on the road bike and get everything right.

“But today, Sam executed a very, very good prologue. I think prologues were always a good test to see where your fitness is at.

“Of course it doesn’t tell us how good he is in the sprint, but it gives us a testament of where his fitness is at and his technical abilities. Okay, it wasn’t the most technical of parcours, but it was 5k out and back.

“I’m just off the phone with him there and he messed one or two corners, so maybe he lost a second or two. But overall from a power point of view, he was probably better than we expected.”

Bennett will be motivated by that, and while he wanted more from the test, he will reflect on it overnight and come out raring to go for Friday’s first road stage.

“I’m very happy that he had the chance to execute a very, very, very good TT,” Barrett continued. “It’s the first time he’s been on the TT bike this year, which again is just how it is.

“But look, we’ll see how the next few days go. Tomorrow looks quite wet and windy. It is a difficult day but it should finish a sprint.

“Obviously you have got Mads, some other guys there, but we’ll see what happens in the next two or three days.”

Friday’s stage takes the riders on a lumpy 157.2km course to Martigues. A second category climb early on is followed by a third category ascent after the halfway mark, and then an undulating run in to the line.

Saturday’s race to Manosque features three climbs, including a category one climb topping out 25km from the finish. Sunday’s 183.2km to Arles is almost completely flat, other than a category three climb very early on.

With two, maybe three sprints likely in the coming days, Bennett and Barrett have a real chance to see exactly how well he is going.

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