Tommy Conlon: Not unloved but mostly unknown, Bennett flies the flag in a hard trade
They had cycled in brilliant sunshine through the fabulous countryside of northern Italy before the rain came down with ten kilometres left to race.
Sam Bennett is from Carrick-on-Suir but it doesn't make him immune to the treacheries of a slick road on a high-velocity bike in a packed and speeding peloton.
He'd felt his wheels give, once or twice, on the run-in and ultimately he twitched as the sprint finish loomed. He was disconsolate afterwards. He was also impressively candid. "Yah, I just - I'd a few slips, eh, (and) just lost the nerve," he told a TV reporter.
It was Stage 17 of the Giro d'Italia last Wednesday afternoon, from Riva del Garda to the lakeside town of Iseo in the province of Brescia. On Thursday the race would enter the mountains and stay there on Friday and yesterday. Iseo therefore would offer the last chance for the tour's two super-sprinters to claim another stage win before the circus arrived in Rome for the grand finale today.
Bennett had two stage wins already. His rival for the maglia ciclamino, the mauve jersey worn by the leader of the points classification, was Elia Viviani. The Italian had three stage wins and was wearing the ciclamino as they set out from Riva del Garda. The stage would be short, 155km, but it would turn out to be severe. Various breakaway groups attacked repeatedly, the tempo was frenetic.
With some 60 kilometres gone the riders entered an 8km climb, not especially gruelling but with a serpentine road which, viewed from an aerial camera, looked like a series of U-bends. The gradient was downright nasty in places.
"Gosh, they're gonna feel that today," said Carlton Kirby on Eurosport. "It may not be the most mountainous terrain but the pace today has been almost punishing. If anyone thought this was gonna be an easement into the three mountain days to come, it's been brutal."
Word came through that a Belgian had abandoned. "It's not surprising that riders are abandoning, the way they're racing here today," remarked Seán Kelly on co-commentary. "If you're not in the best of form, if you're starting to suffer, if you're a bit sick, well then you're going to get caught out here."
The constant breakaways meant that a bunch finish and a sprint shootout between the two fastest guns could not be guaranteed. Bennett's Bora-Hansgrohe colleagues galloped hard to police the front of the group and keep his chance alive.
"Sam Bennett has got to try something today if he wants that ciclamino jersey," observed Kirby with 71km to go. "He would love it but it's gonna be a big task to shake Viviani out of it." A heavy shower came down and then it was back to bright sunshine again as the peloton poured its way through the verdant landscape.
The feed zone materialised with 50kms left. Team staffers stood on the side of the road handing out musettes to the riders; they grabbed the bags one-handed and kept going. The attacks continued through the feed zone, causing another Belgian pro to fumble his nose bag. "Ben Hermans hadn't got the time to get into his musette and get his food and drink out of it," sniggered Kelly, not exactly overflowing with empathy. "That tells the way they're riding up front."
With 12km to go the last two breakaway cowboys were hauled in by the pack. The sprint showdown between Bennett and Viviani was now on the cards. Then the clouds above started to spill. "Well, 11 kilometres (to go) and the rain appears," declared Rob Hatch on commentary. "The sprinters' worst nightmare, the general classification guys' nerve-breaker. Rain is not what they wanted."
The day had darkened all of a sudden too as the black sky occluded the sunlight. Surface water was visible as the pack hurtled through the suburban streets of Iseo. To complicate matters further, they would have to navigate a left-turning chicane 400m from the finish.
Viviani, meanwhile, was being towed along by a couple of surviving team-mates who were timing their work to perfection. The Italian was sitting on Bennett's wheel with 2km left, watching him like a hawk. Then the Dutch pro Danny van Poppel jumped. Viviani pounced on Van Poppel's wheel while Bennett found himself boxed in some eight places further back. Viviani exploded onto his pedals in the final 100m; Bennett instantly sprung from the pack and did likewise; Viviani took it by a whisker on the line.
Bennett was the picture of rueful dejection afterwards, shaking his head as he dissected the climax. "Yah, just lost the nerve. Like, I had the legs. I just couldn't get out." A deep, heavy sigh. "Just timing. I was coming from behind and I just ran out of road."
Stage wins in the Giro, the Tour de France or the Vuelta a España are landmark achievements. Bennett's victory on stage 7, 16 days ago, was his first Grand Tour win. He followed it up with a second at Imola six days later. At 27, he joins Kelly, Shay Elliott, Stephen Roche, Martin Earley, Philip Deignan, Nicolas Roche and Dan Martin in the small but glorious pantheon of Irish winners of a triple crown stage.
Times have changed. An Irishman competing at the cutting edge of the world's great bike races doesn't seize the nation's affections like it once did, for all sorts of reasons. But he's out there anyway, not unloved but mostly unknown, flying the flag in a hard trade a long way from home.
Sunday Indo Sport