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Stephen Barrett, left, is the Irish coach at Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team now preparing Sam Bennett for the battles ahead and he says we’ll see a different rider in 2024 (Photo: Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team)

By Shane Stokes

With Sam Bennett due to begin his season in the Tour de La Provence on Thursday, Stephen Barrett gives the lowdown about where things are at. He speaks about how he and Bennett started from scratch to build a relationship, the Carrick-on-Suir sprinter’s perfect training of late and why we will see a “refreshed” Bennett this year after recent seasons failed to click

Sam Bennett’s new coach Stephen Barrett has given an upbeat assessment about the new Decathlon Ag2r rider’s shape on the eve of the Tour de la Provence, saying things have gone perfectly in training and the signs are promising.

“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,” Barrett told stickybottle for this in depth interview in which he also speaks about the Bennett we have seen in recent years and what now motivates him.

“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.

“We did a bit more specific work at the end of the training camp in La Nucia. We did lead-out work and we had some specific work behind the scooter to work on some overspeed, some higher speed exercises.

“Since then it’s been good. It’s a difficult one always with a sprinter because you always need a reference point and Sam hasn’t had a reference point in a while. So he’s he is excited to race in Provence and he’s also a little bit apprehensive because it’s the first time you test yourself.”

Bennett joined the Decathlon Ag2r La Mondiale squad after three somewhat-frustrating years. He won two stages plus the green jersey in the 2020 Tour de France and had a superb start to the following season, but then suffered a knee injury which kept him out of the 2021 Tour.

Bennett on the biggest day; the final stage of the Tour in Paris in 2020, which he won in the green jersey. Barrett is convinced the Irish sprinter can win again on the Tour (Photo: Pauline Ballet)

He moved back to Bora-hansgrohe for two seasons but with his results not quite at their previous level—with the exception of two stage wins in the 2022 Vuelta a España—his team passed him over for selection in the Tour.

Moving to Decathlon Ag2r La Mondiale is a fresh start and one Barrett believes can go very well.

“From how I see it in his training and his numbers, Sam is in excellent shape,” he said. “I think he’s climbing very, very well. His peak power is good. Stuff like his threshold numbers have been really impressive in training. So I’m excited to see him race.”

He pointed out that the Tour de la Provence is usually a climber’s race due to the inclusion of the likes of Mont Ventoux. However this year it is different, and he isn’t ruling out Bennett finishing well up in the overall.

“This year there’s a very, very short prologue and then there are two sprint days and one sprint/puncheur day. The weather looks like Ireland in the middle of winter with some rain and some wind. So that I think can really play into Sam’s benefit.

“The goal is to is to win. Simple as. To win a stage. The GC is possible if he does a good prologue. But we said to him the focus is not the prologue, the focus for him is to win. To put his hands in the air on one of those road stages.

“The first one is quite good. The last stage is also a sprinters’ day, but I would expect quite a lot of crosswinds there as well.

“We have a strong team there. And yeah, let’s keep our fingers crossed that the Sam can start the season off on a good note.”

Building a bond

Barrett was a key part of Bennett’s decision to move to Decathlon Ag2r la Mondiale. It’s two decades since the team was last worrying the other sprinters in the Tour de France, with Jaan Kirsipuu winning four stages there.

Sam Bennett, left, and Wout van Aert in Paris-Nice 2022, and now the Irishman is chasing the kind of form he displayed a year or two earlier (Photo: Kristof Ramon)

Going to the French squad was a leftfield choice, but Bennett believes he will be fully appreciated and prioritised in the French team. After three years of teams doubting him, that is important.

Barrett freely admits that he hasn’t coached a top sprinter before. However he has guided Ben O’Connor, Bob Jungels, and Felix Gall to Tour de France stage wins in 2021, 2022 and 2023 respectively. Doing the same with Bennett is his big 2024 target.

So what has the early stages of working with him entailed?

“The most important thing is creating a relationship. And that isn’t something that just happens overnight. It’s something that both parties must be invested in. For me, the key to success, the magic piece in success, is a good relationship with riders.

“I know that for myself with Ben O’Connor and Felix Gall, I have an incredible bond with those guys, a coach/athlete bond. They trust me completely and I trust them completely.

“So with Sam, what initially happened was we sent a few text messages to each other. He lives not far from me. It’s funny, he is from Carrick on Suir, I have a house in Ballygunner, Waterford, so we don’t live far apart in Ireland. He lives in Monaco, I live in Villefranche-sur-Mer in the South of France. So we’re actually very, very close proximity. That helped that initial awkward period.

“I went and met Sam in his apartment, we had some coffee. We went for lunch one day in Monaco just to chat. It was important to just to let him speak. To let him tell the story. What worked, what hasn’t worked, what his motivations are. And then for me then as a coach to be able to compute all that and then mould my skills to what Sam needs and what Sam wants.

“I think sometimes when you have a guy like Sam, if you start try to mould him into what your philosophy is, that doesn’t work. You can with a young guy, but for me, it’s about me moulding to what Sam wants and more important what he needs.

“And I think it’s been good. We have a good relationship already. We chat to each other on the phone most days. For me the critical point was that that initial honeymoon period where you’re trying to create that strong bond, that strong relationship, where he knows he can trust me.”

“We will see a refreshed Sam”

Starting well in Provence will be important for Bennett. His confidence has taken a knock over the past three years, with the Carrick on Suir rider going from being the world’s best sprinter to a rider who was
hampered by misfortune and, as a knock-on effect, by self-doubt.

Barrett said he has no doubt that the magic is still there, ready to emerge again.

“Over the past year or two Sam didn’t achieve what he what he felt he could achieve. I think there’s that misconception that maybe he’s past it. That there’s some better, younger, faster guys. But with Sam, from knowing Sam, but also from speaking now to him, I have no sense that he’s here to take the easy way out.

“What I heard from day one is he wants to win the green jersey. He wants win the points in the Vuelta. He wants to win the points jersey in the Giro. He has all these big ambitions still, because he knows he’s
capable of doing that.

“I think we’ll see a refreshed Sam in his new colours this year. I’m not expecting him to go and achieve something that he is not capable of. If he can just execute and achieve what is capable of doing, then we are certainly more than happy.”

So, big question. If he does that, does Barrett believe that would that put him back in the frame for the green jersey in the Tour?

“It completely does. It completely does. Absolutely.”

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