Saturday 19 October 2019

Bennett: 'Worlds is going to be an elimination race, one for classics men'

Sam Bennett. Photo: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images
Sam Bennett. Photo: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images

Gerard Cromwell

It's been 37 years since the UCI World Road Race Championships were last held in England.

Back then, a young Irish sprinter from Carrick-on-Suir took the bronze medal in Goodwood behind Beppi Saronni of Italy and Greg LeMond of the USA.

This year the Worlds are back in England - this time in the Yorkshire town of Harrogate, and this year another young sprinter from Carrick-on-Suir will be hoping to pick up a medal for Ireland.

Although he is quick to dismiss any comparison to his predecessor Seán Kelly, apart from sharing the same home town as the former world number one, like Kelly in his day, Sam Bennett has been the most prolific sprinter in the pro peloton this year.

"As a sprinter, I think you have to be winning from the start to the end of the year, whether you're feeling good or bad - so I think it's good that I've showed that consistency this year," says Bennett ahead of tomorrow's elite men's race.

"Even when the form wasn't good, I got results out of it. I learned a lot from this year and hopefully I can continue doing the same next year."

Out of six sprinting opportunities at the Vuelta a Espana last month, Bennett (right) won two stages and finished second four times but his response to those results reveals another Kelly-like trait. Hunger.

"I'm still disappointed with the Vuelta," he admits. "There were six opportunities there and I was never less than second, so I should be happy with that. But I was so close on four other occasions where I could have won and just didn't. I wanted at least three wins there. That was my target. In my head I failed but I suppose I shouldn't really complain with two wins."

Indeed, Bennett has won a stage in every stage race he has ridden since May 2018 - apart from the Tour of Romandie, where a lone attacker ruined the complete set and Bennett had to settle for second again.

It's this consistency though that sparks hope in the hundreds of Irish supporters thronging the Yorkshire Dales this weekend. Do their hopes carry added pressure for the national road race champion?

"A lot of the pressure is brought on by myself," he admits. "The Worlds are so close to Ireland and there's a lot of people over... so I'd like to do something that would make them proud. I was riding around the circuit today and I could hear a lot of Irish people calling my name. It's nice, but I think a lot of them are expecting a performance and I don't want to disappoint them."

Alongside Dan Martin, Eddie Dunbar, Conor Dunne, Ryan Mullen and Rory Townsend, Bennett is part of a six-strong Irish team that takes to the start line of the mammoth 280km elite men's title race tomorrow morning.

An undulating circuit through Yorkshire should provide a worthy winner to the marquee event, although the inclement British weather could throw a spanner in the works. Yesterday's U-23 men's race had to be shortened by a lap due to fading light, while flash flooding saw a couple of riders aqua-planing on their back during the time trials on Wednesday.

With further heavy rainfall predicted, there is a weather warning for the weekend.

"The weather wouldn't matter that much if the distance wasn't so long," says Bennett. "I think if the race was 240km or 260km rather than 280km, they'd still get the same result. I like the course but I think the whole race is going to be about positioning really.

"The circuit is punchy and there are so many corners that if you're at the back you're going to explode. It's going to be an elimination race, just about hanging on for that last lap. The roads are hard and heavy and mixing that with the distance, the weather, means I'd be nervous I don't have the engine to really do anything."

"It depends how it's raced. There could be all climbers left at the end. It could go either way, so it's good that we have such a versatile team, with strong guys like Conor (Dunne), Rory (Townsend) and Ryan (Mullen) and very good climbers in Dan (Martin) and Eddie (Dunbar) there for the finale too. I think I should be there on the last lap, but I hope I can race it. In Richmond it was 260km and I was there until the last 5km.

"I'm a lot stronger now and it's only 20km longer. It's 2,000m more climbing, but I should be able for it."

As ever, picking a world champion is like sticking a pin in the Grand National list but tomorrow's circuit is one for the hard men, says Bennett.

"Greg van Avermaet was flying in Canada last week and I think Canada is a great indicator of who's going well for the Worlds. Michael Matthews is another one to watch. He's been on the podium a lot and he's a very clever rider. It's a very punchy circuit which will probably entice attacks but I think it'll be a classics rider.

"Philippe Gilbert has a huge engine too, but I think (Julian) Alaphilippe and (Peter) Sagan are probably the favourites."

Irish Independent

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