Bennett's long and winding road to Le Tour
Published 04/07/2015 | 02:30
It's been a long way from Tipperary to the start line of the Tour de France for Sam Bennett.
That road from Carrick-on-Suir to this afternoon's opening stage in Utrecht has been paved with as many - if not more - injuries, disappointments and struggles as successes for the 24-year-old.
Bennett's father, Michael, played professional football for a couple of years with Eendracht Wervik in Belgium- where Sam was born, but following in his footsteps was never on the cards for Bennett junior.
"When I tried it I was going through a lanky phase and I think my feet were too big for my body, so I never really got into it," he says as he sits in his Dutch hotel room ahead of today's Grand Depart.
"But I was always messing around on a bike and when I was 10, I went and tried a local mountain bike league run by Bobby Power. I really enjoyed it and started road racing when I was 14."
Still a junior, three years later he outsped a heaving peloton containing a few senior internationals to win the John Drumm Memorial in Currow and found a new weapon in his armoury. He could sprint.
"I couldn't sprint at all until I was a junior," laughs one of the pro peloton's fastest young men.
"My coach Martin O'Loughlin did some sprint training with me as a first year junior and I won a couple of races but it wasn't until I won against the seniors that I thought, 'Maybe I'm onto something here'. Even though I was spinning much faster on restricted junior gears, I was able to beat them and that gave me a lot of confidence."
Bennett won the Junior Tour the following year and moved to Marseille as a senior to ride for top amateur team VC La Pomme, the same stepping stone to the pro peloton used by compatriots Mark Scanlon, Nicolas Roche, Philip Deignan and Dan Martin.
Victory at the GP Alleins and a stage of the An Post Rás in his first senior year, followed by a stage win at the Rhone-Alpes Isere Tour and the Irish U-23 title in 2010, saw the big pro teams come calling, with Francaise de Jeux offering him a position as an end-of-season stagiare or triallist.
"They were looking for sprinters and Marc Madiot said he'd like to give me a two-year contract," says Bennett. "I got tendonitis though and couldn't do the stagiare and never got my contract."
The tendonitis and the missed opportunity were to set the tone for the next three years with a move to Belgium and Seán Kelly's An Post-Chain Reaction team seeing flashes of potential, such as another U-23 title and victory at the GP Stad Geel, interspersed with long periods of injury and illness.
"It was never smooth sailing," admits Bennett of the long and winding road to the pro peloton. "There was always something in the way: knee injuries, operations, recovery, getting knocked down while I was out training. The hardest thing was to have patience and keep plugging away. Sticking at it when I was injured or things weren't going right was hard. In the days when Seán (Kelly) went over to Belgium there was nothing to fall back on at home. Nowadays life is nice at home and if you're struggling it can be appealing when things are tough.
"This week two years ago I had knee trouble again, had no condition, wasn't strong enough and was sitting down with my dad discussing whether or not to continue cycling. He was leaving it up to me but he knew I was upset the whole time because I was injured. He reminded me that if I wasn't enjoying it, there was more to life than cycling."
The discussions went on for two days before both parties agreed to give it one last shot, as a deferred college course wouldn't begin until the end of the season anyway. Bennett (below) won the Suir Valley 3-Day in Clonmel before going back to Belgium where he used kermesses to train, riding flat out, trying to make himself blow up.
"Suddenly I wasn't blowing up anymore and I started to get a few podiums in decent races and the condition came right for the Tour of Britain at the end of the year. I won a stage there, got a pro contract and here I am a year and a half later riding the Tour de France."
His debut in the pro peloton last year saw him rack up no fewer than four victories and he has added three more already this season, enough to ensure a Tour de France debut as co-leader of the German-backed Bora Argon 18 team.
Forced to miss his last two races due to illness though, he's wary of his form going into the Tour.
"It's my first Tour so I don't know what to expect," he admits. "Obviously it's the biggest race in the world and all the top riders are here but I'm trying to approach it like any other race. People are putting money on me to win a stage but I really don't have that kind of confidence. I've missed a bit of training but looking at my power and stuff I should be okay, so maybe it's just nerves."