Sam Bennett: 'What will I do?' he asked. I pinched the little mic and shouted 'GO!''
Friday, May 5, Stage 1: Alghero to Olbia (206km)
My name is Sam Bennett. I'm a professional cyclist from Carrick-on-Suir and today I began my first ever Giro d'Italia.
For me, it's definitely been a long way from Tipperary to the island of Sardinia, where this year's 100th edition of the three-week Grand Tour began. While flicking through social media ahead of last night's team presentation, I noticed a post from my old club Carrick Wheelers announcing the return of their annual cycling league, the handicap event for underage riders where I first raced a bike.
At nine years of age, I was technically too young to compete but organisers Paul Lonergan and the late Bobby Power, two legends of Irish cycling, allowed me enter because I was due to turn ten that October. I just realised that was 17 years ago and back then there was no way I could have known where those tentative first pedal strokes would take me.
Growing up in Carrick-On-Suir ensured the sport of cycling was never too far out of my mind. Although former world No 1 Seán Kelly was retired by the time I took up cycling, having Seán Kelly Square and the Seán Kelly Sports Centre in my home town meant that I at least knew who he was.
Achievements It wasn't until maybe a decade and half later though that I realised how big his achievements were. When I began to ride some of the biggest toughest pro races in the world, I couldn't believe how many of them he had won, let alone how many times he had won them.
When I was 17 or 18, I'd won a lot of junior races in Ireland and sat down with my dad and told him I wanted to try and make a living from cycling. At the time, I didn't really understand what that involved and had no idea it would take me another six years to turn professional.
I left Ireland to pursue my dream at the age of 19 and thought I had loads of time as an U-23 rider to get a contract, but those years flew by. Looking back now, I suffered a lot of accidents, illnesses and injuries and would probably do some stuff differently if I got the chance again. But each of those setbacks have moulded me into the rider I am today and maybe I wouldn't be as driven without them.
I'm now 26 and have been racing my bike for well over half my life. When I eventually got a pro contract with second division squad NetApp Endura in 2014, after a couple of years with Seán Kelly's An Post team in Belgium, I thought I could live in Ireland. But it's just not feasible.
Every race meant my parents had to drive me to Dublin Airport. Most races weren't a direct flight away so I had to go to London first, which meant four flights by the time I got back home. Going from training in the freezing cold in Ireland to racing in scorching sunshine and back meant that I was sick a lot of the time and it just didn't work. Four years later, the team I turned pro with has grown stronger and moved up to the WorldTour. We are now called Bora Hansgrohe.
I've also grown with the team and with a dozen pro wins now under my belt, earlier in the year my team directeur asked my opinion on what sort of team we should bring to this Giro. As a sprinter, I told him I needed guys who believed in me, who trusted me to give it my best. Even if I'm having a bad day, or if I'm down for some reason, when you see other people giving their all to shelter you from the wind all day so that you can save your energy, or to get you into position for the final sprint, you can't help but be motivated. We came into this race with a group of guys that all get on really well together, because I believe that when you have a good team environment everything flows a bit better on the bike.
I'm rooming with Austrian Lukas Postlberger here. Irish fans may remember him as the winner of the 2015 An Post Rás. Maybe because of that Lukas has a thing for Ireland and Irish people so he's happy out rooming with me, but putting guys together at night is often harder than racing together.
Some guys have habits that simply annoy each other and we've a couple of lads here that just can't room together. They shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, but one of them walks around naked while the other one speaks on loudspeaker all the time. They're both fantastic guys on and off the bike and great friends but if you put them in a room together for three weeks they'll kill each other before the race is over.
With only three riders here who have ridden the Giro before, we may not have much experience but I guarantee you we have enough horsepower to compete with anybody for stage wins.
It's maybe a bit strange that I've already ridden the Tour de France twice but have never ridden the Giro but, possibly because of that, my approach is a bit more calm.
I had three weeks off the bike before my Tour debut in 2015 and had zero condition going into it but I still got to stage 17. Last July I had a bad crash on the first stage, had a small operation to fix a broken hand and rode the rest of the Tour with that broken hand and on antibiotics. I survived, but barely.
This year things have been going really well and I know that there's nothing else I could do to be more prepared for this. As a sprinter, the big bunch finishes are my forté and while you never know how things are going to go, I want to give Irish fans something to scream for in the sprint stages this year.
As today's 206km opening stage was my first opportunity to do that, nerves made my legs feel empty for most of the stage but as the finish neared the adrenalin kicked in and I felt better and better and even if I didn't get a result, plan B was already in action. With three small climbs on today's stage we hoped to get my Italian team-mate Cesare Benedetti into the early break this morning. Cesare is a really strong all-rounder and we knew if he got up the road he would have a good chance of winning the short sprints for the mountains points and even though we expected the break to be caught before the end, if he did that, we knew we'd go away with the mountains jersey at the end of the day.
Having executed the plan perfectly, we caught Cesare and the break just as we came screaming into a right-hander with 3.5km to go. The squeeze saw one of the Trek guys dive up the inside and lean on my lead-out man Rudi Selig, forcing him into the barriers. Luckily, it was a slow corner and he stayed upright, but we both lost a lot of momentum.
rounded My roommate Posty was the only one of the team to get around it properly and found himself in third place 500 metres later. As everyone looked around for their sprinters, a stall saw Posti left on the front as I got back up to fourth wheel behind Caleb Ewan and his lead-out man Chris Jensen with 2km to go. With three or four more tight bends before the finish it took Rudi another kilometre to get back up to me.
I had really good legs and seeing I was in a good position, Posty kept riding hard to force the others to chase and give me an easy ride but Jensen was getting it hard to hold onto him. All of the other sprinters were either alone or only had one guy left to bring him back so he had maybe 20 metres gap as we went under the kilometre to go banner. Thinking that he had messed up the lead-out, Posty slowed down a little and began to panic. 'What will I do? What will I do?" he asked in the team radio.
I just pinched the little mic under my collar and shouted 'GO!'
With 300 metres to go, Rudi was sitting beside me, ready to launch his lead-out if Posti was caught but as the line drew nearer we didn't want to start the sprint in case we were the ones who caught him. When the sprint started, I was baulked by a Dimension Data rider who cut across me and finished tenth but Posti had already thrown his hands in the air with 50 metres to go.
You only have to look at the slow-mo of the finish to see us all grinning with delight as we crossed the line before mobbing him. In the melee, I grabbed him by the ears and screamed his name in delight. He was crying in disbelief but I don't think the enormity of his win had even hit him by the time he pulled on the race leader's pink jersey.
It's half an hour after the stage now but nobody has showered yet because they're all still screaming on the bus. I even caught Gerd, our ultra-tough Estonian mechanic, crying a few minutes ago.
What an unbelievable start it's been to this Giro. One day in and between Posti and Caesar we've won a stage and hold every jersey in the race. We can go home now!
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