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Sam Bennett is back in action this week and could target the general classification, depending on how today goes, as well as a stage win

Sam Bennett gets his 2024 season, and his tenure with his new team, underway in France today, Thursday, on the opening stage of Tour de la Provence, hoping for an early season win that would get him on track for a better season.

However, the new Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team rider goes into this race up against an in-form Mads Pedersen, whose well-drilled Lidl-Trek lead-out will be ahead of Bennett’s new, and very much untested, sprint support.

That doesn’t mean Bennett cannot beat the Dane to the chequered flag at some point, or that Pedersen will get to the finish himself in the sprints with a smooth run in a race without a high quality field.

Bennett has beaten Pedersen many times in his career and when both are at their best, Bennett is definitely faster. The big question is whether Bennett will be at, or close to, his best this season, especially in these first few races.

Pedersen already has a stage win, and an overall victory, in the bag from last week’s Etoile de Bessèges (2.1), though he was also beaten there when sprinting for victory.

Today’s opener in Tour de la Provence is a pan flat 5km TT, one where both Pedersen and Bennett could make gains if their legs turn up on the day. The prologue will not be Bennett’s main focus but if he put in a ride it would place him in contention for the general classification this week as the course over the next four days is mostly flat.

Bennett’s coach, Stephen Barrett, has told stickybottle his charge may target a TT result towards the general classification, though also making it clear the sprint stages would be his priority.

That first sprint chance will likely come tomorrow at the end of the 158km stage from Aix-en-Provence to Martigues. It features some lumps and bumps along the way, and the breeze may blow and split things up, but a sprint looks likely.

The third stage on Saturday takes the riders 165km from Forcalquier to Manosque. Though the climbing is more challenging, it will still suit the sprints who can climb a little and have the condition to still be fresh at the finish.

There is a 6.6km climb, at 4.8 per cent, with just under 30km, followed by some draggy roads and then a slightly uphill finish, though the sprinters are still expected to contest it.

The race then concludes on Sunday with another likely sprint at the end of a flat 183km of racing, from Rognac to Arles, completing a course for the sprinters, with no testing climbs this year.

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