Despite taking his first, second and third Grand Tour victories at last month’s Giro d’Italia, Sam Bennett isn’t quite convinced that he belongs at the sprinters’ top table:
“I still don’t see myself as being a Grand Tour stage winner. I actually can’t believe it happened.”
Even though, for each of those wins, he outgunned the rider with – by far – the most individual victories this season, Elia Viviani?
“I thought I’d feel different. I just feel like the same guy. I’m here thinking: ‘how am I going to win again?’”
Although many of us have imposter syndrome to one extent or another, it’s not something you expect to see symptoms of in this type of rider, at this level. Bennett does not possess the swagger of Kittel. He does not intimidate like Cavendish. Despite standing several inches taller, he is not physically imposing in the manner of Dylan Groenewegen or even (the recently demoted) Caleb Ewan.
In fact it’s only afterwards that I realise I had earlier, while on my way to meet him at the Hansgrohe showroom on Clerkenwell Road, walked passed him in the street without realising. That could just be a London thing, though.
He might not be sure he’s woken up yet but Bennett is clearly delighted to keep dreaming, and happy to pore over the details of how those wins (that he’s not entirely certain happened) came about.
Physically, the difference between previous Grand Tours he’d ridden and this year’s Giro d’Italia was Bennett’s capacity to endure such heavy days in the saddle. He has long had the raw speed but “I wasn’t getting to the finish fresh enough [to call upon it].”
In order to build that condition he shifted his training focus away from building power to simply spending more time on the bike:
“Before the Giro I was doing three day blocks of fifteen to seventeen hours for five to six weeks. Some weeks was over thirty hours a week. And the funny thing was my body was loving it. It was absorbing it. It was ready for the next day and it wanted it.”
So that’s part one. How do you then go about beating a seemingly unstoppable force like Quick-Step? By stage seven of this year’s race, including Gaviria’s four victories last year, Bennett calculates that the Belgian team had a 6-0 record against him in Giro sprints.
He admits that “Quick-Step knew how to beat me” but, he adds, “I think they underestimated me too.”
With his Bora-Hansgrohe team-mates having used up their reserves pulling back the breakaway, on the run-in to Praia a Mare Bennett found himself about fifty riders from the front with only a band of brothers in blue for company. Despite his isolation he was determined not to let Viviani come off his wheel, as had happened too many times before.
Quick-Step, he says, “tried to panic me. They tried to hold back.”
It was a straightforward stareout and Bennett was determined not to blink first, even if that meant losing. With the flamme rouge rapidly approaching “[Quick-Step] were like, ‘let’s go, we can’t wait any longer.’ They went.”
Bennett had the lead-out he needed and, a few hundred metres later, the win that had eluded him.
His second victory was impressive but came about in somewhat more straightforward circumstances. On that occasion a small climb on the approach to the Imola finishing circuit was enough to see off the threat from Viviani. Bennett went early, with about 400m to go, and won comfortably. It was special not just for the manner of it, or because “I’m a bit of a petrol head” but it was also “the first time my fiancé ever saw me win a pro race. Or any race. And we’ve been together nine and a half years.”
The next opportunity for sprinters, and the last before Rome, was stage 17. Having underestimated him once, there was no danger of Quick-Step doing so again. Watching in real-time on TV it was easy to conclude that Bennett simply mis-timed his move. He says different: two Quick-Step riders positioned themselves on each side of his handlebars, preventing him from following Viviani’s wheel.
Although Bennett found his way through and finished fast, there was not enough road left to do better than second. Imposter or otherwise, his unmistakable upset was the reaction of one expecting to win. “Of course I was happy with the second place,” he says now, “but not who the second place was to.”
The Giro finished up 4-3 to Viviani in terms of stages, with the Irishman landing the final blow in Rome. Bennett takes no small satisfaction from having made a contest of it: “It was entertaining for the crowds. I think if Viviani was winning every stage nobody would have been interested, but there was a battle there.”
After going over his wins, he is eventually forced to concede that perhaps “I do have a sense of belonging” among the big name sprinters mentioned earlier. “But you need that Tour de France win, don’t you?”
Still, and surprisingly, but perhaps sensibly, given he’s team-mates with Peter Sagan, he’s in no rush to push for a spot in the biggest race of all.
Instead he says, looking towards next season, “I want a Milan-Sanremo programme, and I can’t deny it. I got so much confidence in my climbing at this Giro I know if I prepare right I can be there in the final and I can compete. I mightn’t win it, I mightn’t get anywhere near it, but I know I can compete.”
Imposter? Sounds like the real thing to me.