Nicolas Roche: 'Sam Bennett's won lots of pro races but today was the best by far'
Tuesday March 7, Stage 3: Chablis to Chalon-Sur-Saone (190kms)
After two consecutive days of being battered by gusting rain storms, culminating in a disastrous result yesterday that saw my BMC team lose all hope of winning this Paris-Nice overall, my team-mates and I had only one goal leaving Chablis this morning.
Although team leader Richie Porte is now well out of contention for overall victory here, he remains one of the favourites for tomorrow's individual time trial so our sole aim was to get him to the finish safe and sound and having used the least amount of energy possible so that he could recover and be fresh for stage four's race against the clock.
The best way to recover of course would have been to spend half the day tucked up in a nice warm bed and maybe go for a light spin to loosen the legs afterwards, but when you have 190km of a WorldTour race to ride, recovery is not so easy.
Most people would probably need a couple of days in bed just to recover from today, let alone the preceding two days.
Thankfully, a lot of the peloton seemed to be in the same frame of mind this morning and when three riders attacked from the drop of the flag, it wasn't long before some of the Italians began to shout 'Basta basta, basta!' (Enough, enough, enough!)
With the rain finally stopped and the wind behind us, the sprinters' teams knew that three riders would have little chance of surviving to the finish so the FDJ team of race leader Arnaud DeMare set the tempo at the front of the peloton and allowed them to grow their advantage to eight minutes before the real chase began.
Today, Richie and I found ourselves riding alongside most of the GC contenders, in the last 30 or 40 riders of the bunch for much of the day.
Even though we were going a lot easier for the first half of the stage, it almost felt worse than the previous days. Most of my day was spent grumpily staring at my computer counting down the kilometres until around 60km to go, where upon realising the escapees still had six minutes, a few more sprint teams appeared at the front to increase the pace.
Although we were well-sheltered from the wind, a few crashes around us inside the last 25km soon saw Fran Ventoso and I bring Richie up through the bunch to avoid any pinch points as the speed ramped up.
Within 20km, the gap had been cut in half but it still took us until the final kilometre to catch the breakaways and set up a bunch sprint finish.
Although we couldn't see what was happening in the sprint to the line, when they announced that 'le sprinteur Irlandais, Sam Bennett' had won the stage, both Richie and I simultaneously punched the air and let out a shout of 'Yes!'
Richie, Sam and I live near each other in Monaco and although Sam rides for a different team, we're all good friends and train together a lot during the season.
Amazing To win today was a fantastic result for Sam, the biggest of his career. To win a Paris-Nice stage is pretty special but to do it in the way that he did today - by beating most of the fastest sprinters in the world, is an amazing achievement.
Paris-Nice has been synonymous with Irish riders over the years, with Seán Kelly having won seven editions of the race and my dad having won one overall and five stages here, the last of which came 28 years ago.
Coincidentally, dad's been on the podium this year working for race organisers ASO and today, as I watched the ceremony from the team bus after the stage, I could see him shaking with delight as he congratulated Sam on another Irish stage win.
A quiet guy who's had his share of injuries over the years, Sam even contemplated giving up cycling at one point before battling back to be offered a pro contract in 2014.
A baby-faced assassin, who'd have trouble getting into a teenage disco in Ireland, he's probably had more trouble growing his new beard than he's had winning races since then but, for me, today was the best of the lot and a really big day for him and Irish cycling. I'm really, really happy for him. Maybe I won't shave tonight.
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