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‘I hid in my room and played the PlayStation as a kid. I was very quiet, but cycling gave me my identity’

Cyclist Sam Bennett speaks about a successful 2018 which saw him collect three stages at the Giro d’Italia.

Cyclist Sam Bennett.
Cyclist Sam Bennett.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

AS CHRISTMAS TIME rolls around, the end of 2018 should be one of complete and utter celebration for Sam Bennett following an incredible season which saw the Irish cyclist make history, smash records and collect a host of titles across Europe.

But unfortunately there is an overriding sense of frustration for the 28-year-old sprinter, born in Belgium and raised in Carrick-on-Suir, despite the fact that the Bora–hansgrohe rider is beginning to hit his stride and reap the rewards of a decade of grit, hard work and dedication to his sport.

Bennett made headlines in this country and across the continent back in May when he became the first Irish cyclist since Sean Kelly at the 1988 Vuelta a Espana to secure multiple stage wins at a Grand Tour, winning in the 159km seventh stage, from Pizzo to Praia a Mare, and the 214km 12th stage, from Osimo to Imola, at the Giro d’Italia.

download Bennett celebrates on the podium in Rome. Source: Gregorio Borgia

Six days later he dramatically stole the spotlight off Tour winner Chris Froome (Team Sky) and points jersey victor Elia Viviani (Team Quick Step), adding to his two victories at the 2018 Giro with a dramatic third stage on the final day in the sun-drenched capital. Far from a Roman holiday, it was the perfect way to bring the curtain down on a phenomenal month for the Carrick man.

Bennett’s incredible success, winning three stages at the Giro, was his greatest ever performance at a Grand Tour. On top of besting Kelly’s record from 30 years ago, Bennett also moved clear of another Irish cycling icon, Stephen Roche, who only won two stages in Italy back in 1987.

Earlier this month he picked up the Individual Performance accolade at the annual Irish Cycling Awards. While last Thursday night in Dublin he was also nominated alongside athletes like Johnny Sexton, Katie Taylor, Phil Healy, Brian Fenton and Rhys McClenaghan for the main prize at the 2018 Irish Independent Sportstar awards.

Source: Cycling Pro Net/YouTube

On top of all that, he won three stages at the Tour of Turkey in October and also won Germany’s annual “Rund um Köln” race in June. By all accounts it has been an immensely successful season for Bennett, but the fact that he won’t get the chance to race either the Tour de France or the Giro in 2019 has ended his year on a low note. Decisions beyond his control.

“I’m gutted,” he sighs speaking to The42. Granted, Bennett will have been aware when he signed for ambitious German-based team Bora that the chances of riding at the Tour de France were slim, with the team dominated by home-grown talent, as well as the Slovakian Peter Sagan, arguably the best sprinter in cycling today and undoubtedly Bora’s biggest asset.

Bennett knew he had no option but to earn his shot at riding Grand Tours in France, Italy and Spain. But the fact that he pushed his game and raised his level in 2018 to secure three Grand Tour stage wins — and that it still wasn’t enough — means his omission from the Giro next year is incredibly hard to swallow, earlier this month saying he felt “almost punished” by the call.

Imago 20180511 The 28-year-old celebrates winning Stage 7 at the Giro d'Italia in May. Source: Imago/PA Images

Insiders within the cycling community agree that Bennett has earned the chance to ride the Giro again next year, but he has already consigned himself to the decision of his bosses at Bora.

They pay his wages, he says, so there isn’t too much he can do about it at this stage. Sagan will ride the Tour de France, 24-year-old German Pascal Ackermann will ride the Giro and Bennett may or may not ride the Vuelta, he says speaking at a team retreat in Münich.

I met some of my goals this year,” he explains. “Another goal was to win a one-day World Tour race, but the opportunity didn’t come up. The Giro d’Italia was one I was really targeting at the start of the season.

“When you haven’t gotten those results before (winning stages at Grand Tours), it’s always hard to know whether or not you can do it. But for the build-up to the Giro, I was doing three days on, three days off and in that time I was doing 15-17 hours per block for six weeks. So it was 30+ hours of training per week. It was intense, but the body was loving it, it was absorbing it.

Sam Bennett Bora–Hansgrohe Team rider Sam Bennett. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“If I wasn’t confident at the start of the year, I was confident when the work was done. I find with myself that when I have the work done, I’m always confident going into a race. I didn’t know if I would get the win at the Giro, but I knew I’d be close — just knowing the work I’d done. I think in the Giro I was sort of expecting a win, but I didn’t think I’d get three.

I was trying to go for the points jersey (up against Elia Viviani), but I thought halfway through that it was better for me to get more stage wins than to be chasing points on the road for the jersey. I think… yeah, it was one of my best seasons yet, but hopefully I can improve on it.”

Bennett’s rise has in one sense been slow and steady over the course of a decade, but at the same time his performances back in May in Italy also catapulted his name into national headlines back home for a steady three-week period.

Everyone always knew of this young talent making headway in Monaco, where he is based, having moved away from Ireland when he was just 18-years-old to follow his dream of making it as a professional. But trying to penetrate into the national consciousness has proved a difficult feat in a sport like cycling, especially for someone who has had no option but to follow his dreams of success while living outside this country.

In one way, Sam Bennett is the face of Irish cycling, it’s most recent and prominent success story. But in another, and in his mind’s eye, it is tough to have his achievements reach a high level of recognition on a wider scale than just those cycling die-hards.

It’s funny, I don’t feel like a household name in Ireland yet,” Bennett admits. “The general public don’t recognise any other race in cycling bar the Tour de France, but the Giro d’Italia is still a huge race.

Because I haven’t won a stage at the Tour de France I don’t think they see me as a top professional cyclist. I’m still working on it, hopefully I’ll get to the Tour de France at some stage in the next few years. If I can win a stage there, hopefully I can change the perception.”

Sam Bennett with his mother Helen 17-year-old Sam Bennett with his mother Helen after becoming the youngest Irish rider to win a stage at the An Post Rás in 2009. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“It gets frustrating at times,” he continues, “because you can get one rider who wins just one stage in a Grand Tour, and it will make their whole career. In the last 12 sprints in the Giro d’Italia, I’ve never been outside of the top three and I’ve won three stages in one Grand Tour, but it’s not… I don’t know, it’s not really recognised as much in Ireland.

“But if I got one stage in the Tour de France I’d say it would be a little bit different. I suppose I know I want to be a top-level cyclist, I know all of this, and it comes with the sport.”

Is the perception of cycling different in France and Germany and Italy than it is back home in Ireland? “Massive, yeah,” Bennett replies.

Massive. It would be a lot different. But there’s nothing I can change about that, I’m proud to be Irish and I’d never change that for the world.”

The 28-year-old’s story is in intriguing one. He was born in the cycling hotbed of Flanders in Belgium in 1990, and lived in the small municipality of Wervik while his father Michael continued his career as a professional footballer with local side Eendracht Wervik.

The Bennett family would return to Tipperary when Sam was four years of age and his dad would later manage Waterford United in the League of Ireland for a period of time. A sports-mad family, he says. It was from one cycling hotbed to another, with Waterford-born Sean Kelly making his name during the 1970s and 1980s in the county.

download (1) Elia Viviani was his main rival during the Giro; the Italian claimed four stages and took the pink points jersey.

“When you come from a family that is mad into sport, you know the mentality and you know how to approach things,” Bennett reflects. “With every sport there is still that same approach to being professional. It’s funny, I can’t seem to work with any sport psychologist because they just sound like my family. You hear the same stuff. I know all the mind games and tricks.

I just can’t work with one,” he laughs. “But they have been very supportive all the way through. There’s been a lot of close friends who feel like family now that have helped me through the hard times. So it was really a team of people, family and friends, that got me to where I am today.”

He completed one year of an Honours Degree in Health and Exercise Studies at Waterford Institute of Technology, but left Ireland after his first year of college having been in demand to sign for Marseille-based team Vélo Club la Pomme.

That demand came following his display at the 2009 An Post Rás Tailteann, where the then-Leaving Cert student became the youngest ever rider to win a stage at Irish cycling’s flagship race in Clara while still just 17-years-old.

Imago 20180511 Bennett will not ride the Giro next year despite winning three stages at the Grand Tour race in 2018. Source: Imago/PA Images

From there Bennett has gone from strength to strength, with his performances this year the culmination of a decade of rigour, hard work and tenacious and consistent battling through injuries and setbacks. Once labelled a prospect, he is now delivering to the point where he is being named as one of cycling’s most impressive sprinters. It’s been a long journey from Flanders.

“Both my parents are Irish,” he says. “I was born in Belgium but I don’t really remember much of it. We moved back to Ireland when I was four. I was kind of athletic as a child, but never really into sport.

I hid in my room and played the Playstation as a kid. I used to play around on the bike alright, but I was very quiet. I suppose in one sense sport and cycling was something that gave me my identity. I got confidence through sport and I think it’s something sport can give everybody.”

Does he pay attention to the headlines? “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice it,” Bennett says. “But I think we’ve had some world class climbers the last few years in Ireland with Philip Deignan [recently retired], Nicolas Roche, Dan Martin… God I hope I’m not leaving anybody out,” he laughs.

Sean Kelly Bennett became the first Irishman since Waterford's Sean Kelly in 1988 to win multiple stages at a Grand Tour. Source: © INPHO

“So we’ve had climbers the last few years but we didn’t have the sprinter for the Irish fans to follow. I think part of me really wanted to bring that excitement back, to bring big sprint finishes back for Irish fans.

“So I was really proud to be able to give those moments to Irish fans and the response I was getting was fantastic. Then when I saw that I had broken a little bit of history (the first Irishman to win a Giro stage since 1987 and the first to win multiple stages in 30 years) it was a proud moment for me.”

Bennett said he was also incredibly proud to be nominated for the Irish Independent Sports Star of the Year, with cycling fans in this country slightly perplexed at his absence from RTÉ’s shortlist for Sportsperson of the Year, given his achievements throughout this past 12 months.

In one sense it has been a slow and steady rise, but this year has been one that has woken up non-cycling fans to the performances and accolades of the Carrick-on-Suir man.

It’s funny because some people thought I came out of nowhere,” he smiles. “But I’ve seen the work that’s been put in with the injuries and accidents and things like that, so it was nice to have that big turnaround this year.

“Even the first week in the Giro, I was so close so many times and I was just sitting there the morning of Stage 7 thinking: ‘ah shit, maybe I’ll never win a stage of a Grand Tour’. Then to break it was just amazing. I think it’s been the most natural progression you’d see from a cyclist. It was years of slowly stepping up, slowly stepping up.

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“Every year an improvement, every year you’re learning. And it’s something that I kind of think about… it’s a bit off topic… but I see young Irish cyclists saying ‘oh I’m going to give it a go for a year’, but it’s something that you need to dedicate yourself to for three or four years and see how it develops before you can say whether or not you’re going to give it a real shot.

“It just takes so many years to build yourself up. I see myself as being an ordinary person, maybe I’m not as talented as other guys but you can definitely succeed if you put the years in, that’s what I’ve found.

The thing I found is that if you keep knocking on the door eventually somebody will answer. I was knocking on the door for years and now thankfully it’s been answered.”

Bennett is a fascinating character in Irish sport, one at the top of his game but also fully self-aware of the limitations his potential achievements can have in a country like Ireland where cycling is down the pecking order by way of viewing figures and following.

He hit the headlines at home and abroad for this three stage wins in Italy, but he also went viral for pulling a wheelie up one of world cycling’s toughest climbs in Mont Zoncolan, a funny insight into a different aspect of his personality.

“Marvellous rider,” read one comment on Twitter reacting to the wheelie video. “Remember seeing you Sam as a teenager and thinking you’re going to be big. Very proud of you here in Ireland.”

“Absolute lunatic,” read another reply. As Paul Kimmage wrote in an interview with the cyclist three years ago, all sprinters are a little bit crazy, and Bennett insists that confidence is key if he is to continue breaking records, trying to become the household name back home in Ireland which he already is all over Europe.

“I think every person has self-doubt at times. Whenever you get a result you’re always thinking ‘oh God, how am I going to top that?’ You always have self-doubt but you can’t let it put you off or slow you down. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak. I suppose when some people get self-doubt, they give up.

“But if I get self-doubt, it just means I have to fix whatever problem there is, I suppose. Often you’d have some worries in the final of a race, but you just have to ride through it, put it to the side of your head and just not allow yourself to think about it.

“You just have to go for it. I’d be lying if I said I never had self-doubt. Coming into sprints you do think ‘oh what if I can’t do it?’. But you can’t listen to that. It’s all about being strong enough to say ‘no, I am going to give it my all, I am going to break through this’. You have to tell yourself that you’re going to win.”

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Aaron Gallagher

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