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Sean Kelly says the sprint game had changed in pro cycling and that Sam Bennett is on the wrong end of those changes (Photo: Gomez Sport)

Sean Kelly says recent changes in the pro peloton, especially the new high quality combinations of sprinters and lead-out men in several teams, means Sam Bennett will really have his work cut out for him to win big this year.

However, at 33-years-old, Kelly does not believe age puts Bennett over the hill, saying he potentially has some good years left. Instead of age, Kelly told stickybottle it will be other factors that decide the direction of Bennett’s final years in the professional peloton.

While not without hope, indeed for from it, for 10-time Grand Tour stage winner, Bennett, Kelly believed the sprint game had changed in pro cycling and that his fellow Carrick-on-Suir man was on the wrong end of those changes.

Asked about Bennett’s decision to sign for Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team, which has scant lead-out resources, after two years with a world class lead-out at Bora-hansgrohe, Kelly gave a blunt assessment.

“I think there wasn’t a lot of choice for Sam,” he said. “And when you’re in that situation… he definitely had to change. Bora had lost their confidence in him, things were not good within the team, I wouldn’t think, just reading between the lines.

“So Sam’s agent would have been looking around and I don’t think Decathlon AG2R would have been their first choice, if they had a number of teams (to pick from).”

Sam Bennett knows how to win bike races and though Sean Kelly says Bennett can win more, it is going to be harder this year

However, Kelly was still adamant Bennett could make it back to the top, even though his lead-out options inside his new team were so limited. He added late signing Edvald Boasson Hagen could be an asset to Bennett, though nowhere near the lead-out service some of the other sprinters will get this year.

“Boasson Hagen will be able to do a very good final,” said Kelly, though he was referring to get Bennett into position as the sprint approached, rather than being an ideal final lead-out man.

“Boasson Hagen could be a bit of a Ryan Mullen, if he is in good shape. But the final lead-out man… that’s where Sam’s going to struggle, I think.”

Kelly also said Bennett would really feel the difference, especially after working with Mullen and Danny van Poppel at Bora-hansgrohe last year, where they have become arguably the best lead-out duo in the world.

Bennett will also face off against top sprinters this year who have excellent lead-out riders. These include Mark Cavendish and Michael Mørkøv at Astana Qazaqstan Team, Jasper Philipsen with Mathieu van der Poel and others at Alpecin-Deceuninck, Olav Kooij with Wout van Aert at Visma-Lease-a-Bike, not to mention Sam Welsford with Mullen and Van Poppel at Bora-hansgrohe, Tim Merlier at Soudal-QuickStep and Fabio Jakobsen at Team dsm-firmenich PostNL, to name but a few of the most obvious combinations.

However, asked if Bennett could cope on his own at times by surfing the wheels, Kelly said: “Yes, he can, he can. I think if you have two good guys and they can take you to one kilometre to go then you can surf the wheels. But it does make it that bit more difficult to win against the big sprinters with the big lead-outs.

“If he gets back to the level he was at two years ago, he’ll be able to take wins. But you wouldn’t be able to win as many because he’s going to miss having a guy to do that last lead-out and that will be the big thing missing.

“And when you go through the list of other sprinters with big lead out men, it’s some list. So to beat them without the same lead-out, Sam will really have to be at his tops.”

But Kelly is absolutely convinced Bennett can win big races again.

“Last year he just didn’t have that last finishing kick,” he said. “And he’ll have talked about that with his coach and how they can work on it to get it back. So if they have studied it, and worked on it a lot, with the age he’s at, it is possible to get back.

“But there is always that ‘if’. Sometimes when guys lose that outright speed in the last 200 to 300 metres they never get it back, yet others do.”

Kelly said he was also pleased to see Bennett starting his season at Tour de la Provence (2.1) where there would be a better chance of an early win to boost his confidence “and then hopefully it will be all business from there”.

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