First, the perspective, provided by Bora-Hansgrohe’s DS Jens Zemke. “Every athlete has their ups and downs. In a career, it’s not always like you’re a star player. There are bumps.”
Then, the reality on the ground, courtesy of Ryan Mullen. “He mentioned a few times that he felt he was the weak link.”
The subject is Sam Bennett, the Irish sprinter who had endured a miserable 15 months between May 2021 and August 2022, injury, confidence and a very public dressing down from his former team’s owner all colliding together to drag Bennett down from the top of the sport to its very pits.
Now, however, he is back. Two convincing stage wins in the opening weekend of the Vuelta a España promoted him back to the top table of cycling’s top sprinters. Mullen declares confidently: “He has proven he’s back.”
It’s been a slow and stressful journey for Bennett, though, a road that spiralled dramatically downhill when he wasn’t picked for last year’s Tour de France because of a knee injury. In today’s high-paced world where we discard previous triumphs rapidly and are quick to judge failure as terminal, Bennett was apparently finished. Even he doubted a comeback.
Mullen, a fellow Irishman who has known Bennett since 2011, recalls having many conversations with his friend ever since Bennett rejoined Bora-Hansgrohe from Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl this winter.
“I’ve not been hands-on and trying to make him feel better, but I’ve just been reassuring him that he’s on the right track,” he tells Cycling Weekly. “When he’s doubted himself I’ve reminded him of where he’s come from and what’s happened, giving him my own experience in terms of how long it took me to come back from an injury in the past, and how long it takes to come back to the top level.
“I was telling him that you don’t snap your fingers and it comes back back overnight, regardless of how much you want it.”
Bennett, though, was finding it hard to be persuaded. The Tour’s green jersey winner in 2020 was obsessing over minor details, trying to correct everything and analyse every little facet of his training, so desperate was he to return to his former ways.
“You can get into a negative spin when you have a problem,” Zemke says. “You work on the issue but it doesn’t work when you come back to racing and so you go again, looking for other things. It’s a rotation.
“As a professional rider you sacrifice so much, especially if it’s not going in the right direction. You go deeper, you do more training, you think about it. What is it? Is it my nutrition? Is it my weight? Is it my private situation? Is it the material? You go into every little detail. It becomes a question of how strong you are after an injury, a crash or sickness.”
Bennett spent six seasons with Bora before moving to Quick-Step, and upon his return to the German team he was hopeful of hitting the ground running straight away, a second and third place at the UAE Tour confirming the suggestion. But at March’s Paris-Nice he was aware he was still someway off, admitting that he wouldn’t be back to form for a few months.
Mullen recalls difficult moments for his friend. “I told him he didn’t need to feel bad as if he was letting us down because he really wasn’t,” he adds. “Neither myself nor the team felt that. It was just a case of being patient and waiting for it to click.
“I was reminding him he was not the weak link in the team but that it was just a matter of time. There is no weak link here: I think we have the best leadout in the world, but it takes a while for [leadout] trains to click.”
There were times “when you could see he was visibly p**sed off and annoyed at his own performances, but he never brought down the group,” Mullen adds. It’s a common sentiment: whatever Bennett’s own frustration, he kept it to himself, cautious of not wanting to hinder team morale. He knew, deep down, he had a committed leadout who was capable of leading him back to winning ways.
It would be careless not to mention Danny van Poppel’s role in Bennett’s return. A winner of 18 races, the 29-year-old has converted himself into one of the best leadout riders in the peloton. “That’s what I really wanted to be,” the Dutchman smiles, chuffed that his goal is coming to fruition. “It took me a lot of years of sprinting for myself to understand the game.
“It’s really hard to learn so you practise and watch YouTube videos. Cycling always has a different finish, so first you have to look at the type of finish, how the wind is, and then what you do comes to you instinctively.”
Bennett failing in the spring might have reflected badly on him, but it wasn’t worrying Mullen and Van Poppel because they could see the puzzles fitting into place. His win at May’s Eschborn-Frankfurt was the first proof of that.
“You’ve got to learn what each rider is capable of, how they move and you’ve got to learn to put trust in the person in front of you,” Mullen says, explaining the intricacies of a leadout. “That was the biggest hurdle to overcome and we had that straight away. We gelled in the first race so we just had to wait until the results finally came.
“You can’t train a leadout; you’ve got to work on it as the races go on throughout the season. What I know now about finals and positioning and how to move is not something you can train, but something you learn.”
Van Poppel picks up the baton. “A lot of people think a leadout is only important in the last 300m but before then there are a lot of important things that the big public doesn’t see. A good leadout man is more than only the sprint: it’s about staying calm, making the sprinter more relaxed, not panicking and giving each other trust.”
Bennett was originally scheduled to race July’s Tour but he wasn’t in good enough form to be selected. While the Tour was on, Bennett went away and worked on his condition, focusing on the Vuelta where he was becoming increasingly convinced he would win.
“Once he got told he wasn’t on the Tour roster, he got the OK for the Vuelta and he started building up for it,” Zemke says. “He was involved in selecting the buddies around him. It was his wish that Danny and Ryan came. They are well-connected, loyal friends that have gone through bad times together, so they are even more happy when it works out. Sam’s a very emotional person and he can show joy.”
Happiness is exactly what he demonstrated in the Netherlands when he won stages two and three of the Vuelta. It was affirmation of all the hard work paying off. “He knew the problem was his condition and during the Tour he worked on that. Problem fixed,” Van Poppel smiles.
Zemke adds: “Sam was nervous, but it’s all about confidence and the legs. I’ve known him six years now, and we gave him the confidence and the opportunities. Now we’re in the opposite direction of the negative spin: he’s very confident, it’s going well, and we hope for more good races.”
A positive Covid test meant that Bennett had to abandon the Vuelta before the start of stage 10, but his turnaround is complete, according to Mullen.
“He was the quickest guy in the race by a f**king mile,” he states. “He has proven he’s back. He’s going to pick up wins wherever he goes now.”