Friday 17 November 2017

Paul Kimmage: Meet Sam Bennett, the man who could be Ireland's next big thing

Sprinter Sam Bennett is ready to explode onto the big time in his debut Tour de France

They’ve changed name this season to Bora-Argon 18 but Bennett’s form has been even better: a stage win at the Tour of Qatar (pictured) and two stage wins and a yellow jersey at the Bayern Rundfahrt.
They’ve changed name this season to Bora-Argon 18 but Bennett’s form has been even better: a stage win at the Tour of Qatar (pictured) and two stage wins and a yellow jersey at the Bayern Rundfahrt.
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Sam Bennett has always struck me as a bit of a pup. He's a sprinter of course, and they are by nature a bit mad, a bit different, so we'll forgive him the model girlfriend, the pad in Monaco, and the passion for fast cars. But the ear-rings? Really? And all that ugly gel and hairspray!

This was not what we expect of cyclists from Carrick-on-Suir.

He was a golden boy for years but flattered to deceive and we watched and waited for the penny to drop.

He'll take them off soon.

He'll get a short back and sides.

But the gel and ear-rings stayed and he kept bouncing back:

A third division contract in Belgium . . . two stage wins in the Rás . . . a stage of the Tour of Britain . . . a second division contract in Germany . . . a first professional win . . . an outstanding season in 2014 . . . an even better 2015 . . . the 11th Irishman in history to ride the Tour de France.

We sent him a text - a request for an interview about his life and Tour debut - and eagerly awaited a reply. A week passed, nothing. Another week passed, nothing.

Sam Bennett
Sam Bennett

Not a 'No thanks'.

Not a 'Not now'.

Not even a 'Kiss my ass.'

What's eatin' this kid? we wondered. Only a pup acts like that.

It's Friday afternoon in the Utrecht suburb of Zeist. Sam Bennett is sitting in a room of the Oud London hotel with his hair coiffed and his ear-rings shining, explaining what a pup he has been for the last three weeks . . . actually no, that's not quite true, the word he uses is "prick."

"Whenever I'm sick or injured, I go into a bubble and shut myself off," he says. "I turned off my phone and didn't want to talk to the DS (team manager) or the press officer or anybody. I haven't spoken to my parents in three weeks. Tara (his girlfriend) was with me preparing my food and sorting my clothes and I don't know how she put up with me. I was trying to focus and do everything right to get healthy and get back on the bike again but I was a prick."

"You didn't speak to your parents?" I ask.

"No."

"You haven't spoken to them for three weeks?"

"No."

"Wow!"

Sam Bennett of Ireland
Sam Bennett of Ireland

"Yeah," he laughs.

"Tell me about the bubble," I say.

* * * * *

There's a lovely clip on Barry Meehan's thecyclingblog.com that captures the 'birth' of Sam Bennett and how far he has come. The scene is a deserted country road near Clonmel in 2007. Two men are standing with a hand-held video as the two leading riders of the Carrick Wheelers league race contest the win. The commentary - in heavy 'Tipp' - is priceless:

"Where did Sam come out of?"

"That was some ride he did there to come through all the groups."

"He was flying."

Bennett was 17 years old.

"I started racing when I was 14 and remember guys like Denis Dunne and Martin Hanrahan dropping me by 10 minutes," he says. "It used to be a joke at the club: 'Sam Bennett bet you!'"

They don't joke about him now.

The eldest of two boys born to his parents Michael and Helen, this gift for sport was in his genes. Michael played midfield for Waterford United and spent four seasons at Eendracht Wervik in Belgium, where Sam was born. In 1994, he was offered the manager's job at Waterford and moved the family home to Carrick.

Sam was four years old and spoke Flemish.

His new school was Crehena National and one of his earliest memories was a drive in the countryside one afternoon, and his father pointing excitedly at a man who was building a huge wall: "Sam! Look! That's the great Seán Kelly."

But the name meant nothing to him.

He was eight years old when the 1998 Tour de France came to town. "I couldn't really see it and didn't understand it," he says. "We were waiting hours by the roadside for this thing that passed in 10 seconds and I thought, 'What's this all about?' It just seemed so vast and wild and I would never have imagined myself wanting or being able to compete in something like that."

His father hoped he'd make a footballer but Sam didn't enjoy it. "I started at an age when my feet were too big for my body and I kept tripping over the ball. In football, if the team is bad, it's hard to win a match on your own but it wasn't like that in cycling. I liked that you could get into breakaways and win races on your own."

In 2000, a mountain bike league organised by the late Bobby Power was his introduction to the sport. Five years later he was racing on the road and being tutored by Martin O'Loughlin when Lance Armstrong won his last Tour de France.

"I was never a fan," he says. "My best friend at the time (Bernard Geoghegan) idolised him but I remember my father saying: 'When things look too good to be true, they usually are.' I preferred Tom Boonen and Robbie McEwen (two sprinters). Boonen was my hero when he won the World Championships and I loved the way McEwen moved around the bunch and found his own way in the sprints."

In 2008, a surprise win at the European Points Race Championships in Warsaw convinced Bennett he had found his way. He also won the Junior Tour of Ireland that year and had set his ambitions on a career as a pro, but that would take money.

"It was becoming very expensive," he says. "I was still (racing) on an aluminium bike and my parents didn't have the money for a carbon bike and wheels, and I remember sitting down with dad. My auntie and uncle had a business in America and offered to sponsor me. 'Do you really want to have a go at this?' he asked. 'You have to give it 100 per cent.' And I just said 'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' got the bike and the wheels and was chuffed. But I didn't understand how much work was involved."

A year later he raced his first Rás Tailteann and confirmed his class with a terrific stage win in Clara against some wily ex-professionals. Then he left for Marseilles and spent six months with the crack French amateur team, VC la Pomme. He had just turned 19 and life had rarely tasted sweeter:

The talent.

The girl.

The looks.

Sammy Bee had it all.

But in December, after a couple of months wintering at home, it all went horribly wrong.

"It was a cold morning with clear skies and I was in a good mood," he says. "I was about 20 minutes into my training ride and was descending fast through Windgap when this car coming the opposite way just cut straight across me to take another road. The combined speed of the impact was 60 miles per hour.

"I had a broken collar bone, a punctured thigh and a slit across my left eye and remember drifting in and out of consciousness for about nine hours. The hospital was a nightmare. I remember waking up at one point and they were talking about amputating my leg. I started screaming: 'Don't take my leg!' But some trainee had put the bandage on too tight and got a bollicking from the doctor: 'You fucking eejit!'"

It was months before he was right again. He returned to Marseilles and was offered a contract with the pro team, Francais des Jeux, but couldn't race.

The two seasons that followed were a struggle. He had keyhole surgery on both knees and was winning races again but his form was erratic.

"I'd have moments when I'd show potential," he says, "but I could never get a good period where I'd string some form together and get results. It was up and down the whole time and I was getting frustrated."

In May 2013, he won two stages of the Rás and then crashed and hurt his knee in a race in Belgium. He was earning 12 grand a year - more than any other rider on the An Post-Chain Reaction team - but this was not the life he had dreamed of.

He returned home to Carrick and did what he always does when times are bad:

No talk.

No messages.

His door closed to the world.

He was in Tara's house, watching TV in a dark room when his father knocked on the door. "You don't have to do this," he said. "There is more to life than cycling. I understand what you're going through and that you said you'd give it your all but what's the point if you're not enjoying it? And I don't ever see you happy these days."

He pulled back the curtains and stewed on the words. His father was right, he wasn't happy, but had he truly given his all? He called his coach, Neal Henderson, and resolved to work harder than he had ever worked until the end of the season.

"It was my last shot," he says, "and I decided to give it everything. I'd get up, train, eat and go to bed and the boys in An Post (his team) were just laughing at me and called me 'Mister Unsociable.' I was tired every day but I was also building confidence.

"The Tour of Britain was coming up and that was a shop window. The big teams were there and if I could get some good results or win a stage, I knew they would give me a contract."

After a second-placed finish on the second stage to Kendal he thought he had blown his chance. But he was also buzzing and racing with a new desire and three days later, he bolted from the pack to take the stage in Caerphilly. "I know this is going to sound arrogant," he says, "but I wasn't going to be beaten that day."

The German team NetApp-Endura offered him a deal for 2014. He prepared for the new season as he had ended the last and started with a brilliant win at the Clasica de Almeria in March. A month later he won again in Cologne and after a third win at the Bayern Rundfahrt in May, the team ripped-up his contract and offered him a new three-year deal.

They've changed name this season to Bora-Argon 18 but his form has been even better: a stage win at the Tour of Qatar and two stage wins and a yellow jersey at the Bayern Rundfahrt, where he took some notable scalps. His selection for the Tour de France was now a certainty but he was laid low with illness and hasn't raced for a month.

"We rode the World Ports Classic (in May) and a few of the team were sick. I was grand for four days but then it hit me. I thought I had shaken it off but had this race that suited me in Berlin (he finished second) but I was just fucked after it - headaches and coughing like I had a bad chest infection.

"I kept training but couldn't shake it. The doctor told me there was nothing on my lungs but on Monday I had an endoscopy and they found a small tear in my diaphragm, just beside the oesophagus. So it's been pretty stressful. Early in the season, you're going into races feeling confident because you've done the work and that confidence gives you an extra five or 10 per cent.

"But I don't have that here. I got 10 days of good work done but that's not exactly how I would have wanted it and I don't know what to expect because it's my first Grand Tour.

"The team have been great. Ralph Denk (manager) sat down with me last night and said: 'We know it's been a tough couple of weeks, and we know it's your first Grand Tour and obviously we'd love a result but if it doesn't happen the world goes on.' So that was nice, and relieved a lot of pressure but I still want to get some results and give them something back for getting me this opportunity."

"Does the Tour feel different?" I ask. "Have you felt since arriving here that you're on the verge of something different?"

"For sure," he says. "Okay, it's another race but it's on a scale I've never seen before: the size of the organisation and what it takes to run it: the amount of staff here with our team. It's the best riders on the best form and it's overwhelming."

Tara has flown up with him from Nice. His parents were arriving later that evening to watch him roll down the ramp in yesterday's opening stage.

"That will be a pretty big moment for them," I observe.

He thinks about it and laughs. "Yeah, I might even get to talk to them."

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