National road race crown 'means so much to me' says Bennett
After eight years of trying, an emotional Sam Bennett claimed his first elite national road race title when he outsprinted the rising star of Irish cycling Eddie Dunbar in Derry yesterday, with national time trial champion Ryan Mullen taking third.
"I'm really happy. I thought it might never happen," said Bennett after a gritty performance saw the Carrick-On-Suir man prove himself much more than just a sprinter, as he spent most of the 140km race out front in a group of just three riders.
"But then today the opportunity came around and I just couldn't let it go."
Bennett was first to attack when the flag dropped and tore down the opening descent. He stretched the peloton into one thin line before eventually snapping the elastic and creating a breakaway group of five riders that included fellow professional Eddie Dunbar (Team Ineos), French-based amateur Darragh O'Mahony (CC Nogent-sur-Oise) and domestic duo Ronan McLaughlin (Dan Morrissey-MIG-Pactimo) and Mark Dowling, after just a few kilometres.
When McLaughlin's saddle slipped and he required service after 25km, the Donegal man never regained contact and the pace up front was so hot that O'Mahony opted to return to the peloton - a decision that eventually yielded him the U-23 title.
Just as the three leaders were pulling over a minute clear, though, the race was stopped due to a collision on the course and the riders waited for over an hour before hostilities resumed.
"The gap was going out in our favour before the stoppage and I think if we hadn't stopped it would have kept creeping out," said silver medallist Dunbar afterwards.
"I think the bunch were that bit more motivated after the stoppage, whereas we only had three guys to hold them off, but the race organisation handled it very well and the main thing is that, from what I hear, everyone involved in the accident is okay."
Racing restarted with the escapees' original gap reinstated, but the delay saw the race cut short by one lap, reducing the distance to 140km.
Still the trio fended off the peloton, with Dowling only succumbing to the power of his two pro companions on the final circuit, leaving Bennett and Dunbar to fight it out for the title.
"I was terrified of Eddie," admitted Bennett afterwards. "He was super strong. He has such an engine, but I knew I might never get the opportunity to win this again.
"I wasn't taking my eye off him for the whole last lap. Even when I went on the front, I rode in the gutter so he could only attack up one side. I couldn't let him open a gap. I let him do the attacking and was straight on it each time. I took advantage of the situation and I probably owe him a beer. But the way his career is going and how strong he is, he's going to win this title multiple times in the future."
Coming into the final kilometres, Dunbar - who is in fantastic form after a storming Grand Tour debut at the Giro d'Italia recently - knew he was up against it in the sprint so jumped early in the hope of catching Bennett off guard.
"I tried to get rid of him two or three times on the last lap, but couldn't," said the Cork youngster. "He was too strong and was able to stay with me. When you come into a finish like that with the best sprinter in the world at the moment, it's always going to be tough to beat him."
Bennett's victory means he will now get to wear the shamrock jersey of Irish national champion when he lines out for his Bora-Hansgrohe team at the Vuelta a Espana in August.
"This win means so much to me," said an emotional Bennett at the line. "It's a very proud moment in my career and I can't wait to wear the jersey. I'll wear it with a lot of pride and hope I can do the jersey proud."
O'Mahony took the U-23 title ahead of Ben Healy (Wiggins) and Marc Heaney (Asfra Racing).
In the elite women's event, Alice Sharpe, riding for the World Cycling Centre beat Imogen Cotter (SBikes Bodhi Cycling) to claim the title, with Katharine Smyth of Ballymena Road Club taking bronze.
Kanturk's Tom Moriarty (O'Leary Stone) took the Junior Men's title, holding off Archie Ryan (Zappi Racing Team), new national time trial champion Kevin McCambridge (Vitus-Chill.ie-NRPT) and Nathan Keown from North Down CC in a four-man sprint to the line.
Castlebar's Maeve Gallagher soloed to the junior ladies title ahead of Lara Gillespie (Orwell Wheelers) and Caoimhe O'Brien of Lakeside Mullingar CC.