Sam Bennett will make his debut in the Vuelta a Espana today when the three-week race rolls down the start ramp in the seaside city of Torrevieja, south of Alicante. The Carrick-on-Suir sprinter is enjoying the best year of his career with 11 professional victories and will start the race with the aim of adding to that tally — as well as having a tilt at the green points jersey.
The Vuelta, however, is not a race favoured by the fast men, and of the 21 stages, Bennett is likely to seriously challenge for just a handful.
“In the first week, there is meant to be around three opportunities,” he reckons of stages 2, 3 and 4. “And I will have to climb [well] to get them. One is definitely a sprint, but the other two, I am not sure. There are hard, medium, and easy stages for sprinting.”
Today’s opener is a 13.4-km team time-trial after which the race works its way north up the coast towards Andorra, ducking into the mountainous principality on stage 9. The second week begins with a brief visit to France, before heading west across the Iberian peninsula’s northern coastline towards the Cantabrian Mountains in the Asturias region.
The Vuelta ends with some flatter stages near the centre of the country, culminating in the final stage in the capital, Madrid. As well as the flatter terrain, what should also be to Bennett’s liking is the fact that so many of the sport’s marquee sprinters are absent from the start-line, lending weight to the claim the Irishman will enjoy more success over the next three weeks.
Indeed, if he brings his form from last week’s BinckBank Tour, where he won three stages, he could enjoy a fruitful Grand Tour, with seven bunch sprints on the cards and only two top-tier rivals in Fernando Gaviria (UAE Emirates) and Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck Quick-Step).
“I’m very happy about our performance as a team last week,” he said of his recent hat-trick of wins in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The 28-year old will also be buoyed by the fact he will wear the Irish national champion’s jersey on his back, and that’s given him an extra incentive to show himself against the world’s best.
“I always said that when I would get that jersey I want to represent it as best I can,” he said. “It has been a long time since a sprinter has had that jersey. Except for the European Championships, I think I have podiumed in every sprint I have done when wearing the Irish jersey.
“I feel proud that I have it and that I am winning for Ireland. When I put my hands up with the jersey, it feels really nice,” he added.
The other Irishman in the field is the evergreen Nicolas Roche, who has ridden the race eight times, finished a career-best 5th (in 2013), won two stages and even enjoyed a brief sojourn in the race leader’s red jersey. The Dubliner, who lives in Monaco, is racing for Team Sunweb and though his days of contending for the overall title may be behind him, he’s still capable of stage success.
His main job for the race will be to protect their team leader, Dutchman Wilco Kelderman, but he has plenty of chances to go in the breakaways and to chase stage wins like he did at this year’s Tour in July.
Of those most likely to contend for the red jersey, Movistar teammates Nairo Quintana and world champion Alejandro Valverde are among the hottest of favourites. The Spanish-registered team were dealt a huge blow, however, when it emerged Giro d’Italia champion Richard Carapaz was hurt in a crash last weekend and deemed unfit to start.
Jumbo-Visma will be jointly spearheaded by former ski-jumper Primoz Roglic and 2019 Tour de France third place Steven Kruijswijk while Wout Poels (Team Ineos), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First), and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) should all push for the podium.