Exactly two years ago, Sam Bennett sat down with his father, Michael, at their home in Carrick-on-Suir and pondered his future.
It had been a difficult first half to the year, with injury and illness preventing him from delivering on the promise he showed as a junior.
There, he was crowned national junior road race champion, won the junior tour of Ireland and was pretty much unstoppable.
He even won a gold medal in the Points Race at the European Track Championships (and lapped the field), even though he wasn’t sure how the race actually worked.
Then he entered the U23 ranks and things went downhill.
He was hit head-on by a car while out training in December 2009 and the knee injuries sustained from that would subsequently derail his career. At least temporarily.
He was offered a trial with top French team, FDJ, the following year and impressed so much, they were willing to sign him…until they realised he rushed his comeback and he suffered with severe bouts of tendonitis.
Their offer was promptly withdrawn and he spent the next three years battling in the brutal bearpit of Belgium with the An Post Chain Reaction team, a third-tier squad made up of aspiring professionals.
He picked up a few results, but none big enough to register much interest amongst the sport’s biggest teams.
And it was during that conversation with his dad that a few home truths were told.
“This week two years ago, I was injured again and I was sitting down with Dad and we were discussing what would I do,” reflected the 24 year-old.
“‘Will I give up?’ I thought. I was giving it up but I decided to give it one more shot so I suppose it’s not a bad thing that I’m now in the Tour de France… considering I had zero form this time two years ago.” On what exactly afflicted him, physically and mentally, he explained.
“I just couldn’t get a clean break. I was always sick and injured and always upset with the sport and frustrated. I thought there was more to life than just cycling.
“I could’ve taken a different path. I could have ended my career at any moment because I knew it didn’t have to be like that.
“But I said I’d go to the end of the season and see how it went. I was doing absolutely everything I could but couldn’t get a break…but it all came together in the last few months.”
What he did in the next six weeks changed his life; up earlier, bed earlier, training more fastidiously and all for one race. The Tour of Britain. The last-chance saloon.
It’s an eight-day race in September where Bennett was told he’d be signed by a top professional team if he won a stage.
And on a glorious afternoon in south Wales, he managed to get over a category one climb with Dan Martin and Nairo Quintana — two of the best climbers in the world — come to the line with the world’s best, barge Bradley Wiggins out of the way and win a sprint against far more established men.
Within two hours he had three contract offers… and the rest is history.
Now, he’s in the world’s biggest race, as his team’s protected rider, with expectation rising every time he pins on his race numbers. Been some 18 months… “It hasn’t hit me yet, that I’m in the Tour,” he said.
“It’s scary when you see the condition guys are in. It’s the same guys I always race but I haven’t seen them at this level.
“Everyone’s so super lean, veins coming outta their legs, all prepped and ready to go and I’m just feeling like a fat slob!
“You don’t realise how big the race is until you’re here,” he continued.
“The amount of work done behind the scenes just to run the race and the teams within it; it’s on another level. It’s just amazing. You wouldn’t see it in any other event.
“I remember watching it growing up, though to be fair I always wanted to be outside on the bike when it was on.
“I was always thinking ‘maybe I could be in that’ and now I am. It’s surreal. Maybe everything hasn’t gone exactly right in my career but hopefully I can live out the dream and do what I’ve always dreamt of.”
The year has gone almost perfect for him up until recently, when he came down with an illness that curtailed his racing programme.
To that extent, he’s not as confident as he’d usually be, but perversely, he thinks that could work to his advantage in more ways than one.
“I’m okay, probably not as good as I’d have liked to be but I’ve not been 100% the last two weeks.
“But on the flipside, I’m fresh and ready to go and motivated so we’ll see how it goes.
“I would have been nervous if I had really good form and thought I could so something but I just want to enjoy the experience and get through it now and hopefully, if I get an opportunity, I can try and take it. I’ll just take it as it comes.
“Also, because I’m fresh, it might mean come week two, others will tire and I’ll be able to help out a bit. Hopefully that is the case.”
Though it’s a route designed for the climbers more than the sprinters, like Bennett, there are chances for him.
Like on tomorrow’s second stage, which should end in a bunch sprint.
“It’s been a while since there’s been an Irish guy sprinting in the Tour,” he enthused, with his Carrick neighbour Sean Kelly being the last to contest the chaotic finishes over 20 years ago.
“There’s been General Classification riders but it’s been a while since there’s been an Irishman in bunch gallops, so hopefully I can bring some excitement and I’m thinking about that, for sure.
“Having said that, it could go anyway; because there are always crashes and I don’t want a repeat of the one I had at Scheldeprijs.
“It’s always nervous the first week of grand tours and there’s always a crash but I just want to be safe and obviously I want a good result.” On the days where the road goes up, little will be expected of him— from making it home inside the time limit so he can go again the next day.
“Those hilly days down in the Pyrenees and the Alps will be pain on another level but for me, they’ll be just about making it to the finish in the best condition I can…I’m not here to win the hilly stages. I’m here for the sprints.
“Our team are under a bit of pressure to do something as it’s a German team and they’re televising the race for the first time in a while back there so I’m keen to give them, and the Irish fans, something to get excited about.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved