After talking before the Vuelta a España about the need to “find himself” as a bunch sprinter again, a major piece of the puzzle fell into place for Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) on Saturday as the Irishman blasted home to his first Grand Tour stage win in nearly two years.
“This should be the turning point,” Bennett told reporters as he sat in the green jersey of points leader, another of his objectives in the Vuelta, having seen off sprinters as strong as former World Champion Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and reigning Belgian National Champion Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix).
Bennett’s season, and indeed the last 18 months, have been a real rollercoaster. He took a key win for his team at the GP Eschborn-Frankfurt this May, sandwiched between a tricky exit from the former Deceuninck-QuickStep team and injuries and missing out on the Tour de France for the second year running in July.
Even after his stage 2 win at the Vuelta, Bennett was still doubting he had hit full form and instead paid tribute to his teammates for “really making that difference today.” But as a step in the right direction, Saturday’s win was a big one by anyone’s standards.
“I’m on my way back, I’m close, but I think this Vuelta will definitely be the key to bring me back to my top level,” Bennett said. “Here I’ll have that hard racing, be able to go deep, and get my strength, back so I can be really consistent. I’m close but this should be the turning point.”
Saturday’s dash for the line was anything but straightforward with multiple different teams to the fore in the run-in and as Bennett put it, “the first one is always chaotic. After that everybody finds a place and rhythm, so it’s nice to get the first win in early because it takes off the pressure.”
Just as he had said earlier this week about how his top form had yet to arrive, Bennett nonetheless defined stage 2 as “one of those days where everything clicked” and how teamwork had made the difference between success and failure.
“I had the GC riders working for me in the crosswinds, then Jonas [Koch] and Wilco [Kelderman] and Ryan Mullen, specially, in the intermediates, and then Ryan and Danny [Van Poppel] in the final.”
“I don’t know how Danny finds those gaps, but he hasn’t ever got it wrong yet. He delivered me with so much speed, my teammates today really made that difference,” Bennett concluded.
The green jersey
Bennett’s approach to the green jersey appears to be a slightly tentative one, to judge by how he broached the subject with his squad, but as he put it after his stage victory, which was the top priority, it’s a question he’ll now discuss with the team in more detail.
“The director came into the room before the race and said ‘what do you want from this Vuelta?’ and I said ‘do you mind if [apart from stages] I go for the green as well?’” Bennett recounted.
“I don’t know if the team were expecting that, they’d been talking more about stages. But then I said I’d try and go for it and use minimal effort and they said that absolutely no problem, so I went into the stage with that in the back of my mind.”
Bennett explained in some detail that the points jersey can only ever come after succeeding in a stage win,” because if you go for points and don’t get the points jersey, and you don’t get the stage win because you’re using energy going for the points jersey, it’s a little bit of a disaster. But now we have the stage and we can really look into it.”
As team manager Ralph Denk put it, the key point of the Vuelta stage victory, though, is that it was exactly what the Irishman needed and deserved after putting in the effort but not getting rewarded with a bullseye result.
“It’s super nice for us and specially for Sam,” Denk told Cyclingnews. “Everybody in the team is very emotional because Sam has a long flat period, and everybody in the team recognised he’d worked so hard to come back.”
“He was not lazy, and he missed the Tour selection but he did not give up, he was still motivated and it’s really nice to see that work pays.”
As Denk pointed out, Bennett was not just coming back at the Vuelta from a tricky summer, but also that “last year was really hard for him too.”
“First he had the clash with Patrick [Lefevere] and then the knee injury and starting the new season with us was not easy for him.
“He got that nice victory in Frankfurt, but then he was in a hole again, so we’re very happy for him.”
Finally, Denk confirmed, that taking a first early win for a sprinter almost always opens the door to more victories. “It’s like getting a first goal in football. We’ll see how it goes with the green jersey, step by step there. But the pressure is off and for the team, well, we could have had much worse starts.”