'Sam Bennett has arrived. He's a household name now'

Bennett came home eighth and stretched his lead to 55 points over Peter Sagan ahead of Sunday's finale
'Sam Bennett has arrived. He's a household name now'

Ireland's Sam Bennett, left, and Slovakia's Peter Sagan cross the finish line at Champagole. (Benoit Tessier/Pool via AP)

The Champs Elysees has always been a dream growing up, watching that side view camera of the sprinters rocketing down the finishing straight in Paris. I’ve worked too hard for this jersey to give it up now.

- Sam Bennett

Barring a disaster, Ireland's Bennett will realise a childhood dream on Sunday in Paris when he hurtles down the Champs Elyseees resplendent in the green jersey as winner of the points classification at the Tour de France.

"The 29-year old holds a commanding 55-point lead over seven-time winner and three-time world champion Peter Sagan, and though it's mathematically possible to lose, it would take a mighty stroke of misfortune for Bennett to surrender the green jersey."

However, given the way he has ridden since the race rolled out of rain-lashed Nice almost three weeks ago, few would bet on that outcome — and certainly not the one man who has overseen his career since he first turned a pedal over two decades ago.

Martin O'Loughlin can take his fair share of the credit for moulding Bennett into the rider he is today, the schoolteacher mentoring him during those formative years when the young prodigy raced locally in Carrick-on-Suir and Clonmel.

“I first saw Sam as a nine-year old and recognised he had something special then,” said O'Loughlin.

“He was winning mountain bike league races with ease from the age of nine, despite tough handicapping by two of the real mainstays of cycling in Ireland, Bobby Power and Paul Lonergan.

“Sam was always very dedicated, but he trained too hard. He often did too much hard stuff, and not enough easy stuff to allow him to do serious speed and sprint work.” Blessed with a devastating finishing kick, Bennett was a prolific winner all the way through the underage ranks, into his junior and U23 years, but he faced some real tests of his character along the way.

“I never lost faith in him, but you need luck in cycling and it deserted him for nearly three seasons,” continued O'Loughlin, partly referring to a terrible head-on collision with a car that could so easily have ended more than a promising career.

There was the prolonged rehab, subsequent dip in form and doubts about whether Bennett could make it back.

“Because of his mother’s lovely personality off the bike and his father’s drive and determination on it, I never had any doubt.

“He has very good people around him at home, and that is one of his strongest assets off the bike,” continued O'Loughlin, himself a very capable rider and Cycling Ireland coach.

In his Deceuninck - Quick Step team, Bennett might not have started this Tour de France as team leader, because that title was bestowed upon French favourite Julian Alaphilippe.

But all that changed when Bennett claimed a marvellous stage 10 in a thrilling bunch sprint, claimed the green jersey, before promptly breaking down in tears on live television.

That the aforementioned Alaphilippe has struggled for form has only heightened the attention on Bennett, but he has revelled in it for the first time in his career and shown a maturity that has often deserted him.

“I’ve learned many things about myself this last few weeks,” he told reporters after yesterday's 19th stage.

“I've learned that Sagan is an absolute beast, like I didn’t know it already. But I also saw that I am not such a bad rider either. I am pretty okay.

“I’m getting such great support at home and it has been fantastic,” he added. “For me, it is the confidence booster I needed to remind me that yeah, I am one of the top dogs in cycling.” Sprinting is a high-stakes game where the margin for error is so tiny that often the width of a tyre separates first from second.

“The margins between all the top sprinters are very fine,” acknowledged O'Loughlin.

“On their day, Sam and Dylan Grownewegen are the fastest. Caleb Ewan is the strongest into a headwind because he can get so aero. And on a lumpy finish, Sam has more than one trick available, so he is obviously up there in the world now and I think the general public is starting to see that now.

“Three weeks ago, I felt the media and the public didn't perhaps give Sam the recognition he deserved when the race started, but since he won that stage he’s been headline news. And not only the sports news either. He’s arrived and is almost a household name in Ireland now.

“I’m out on the bike or in town and I'm being called Sam Bennett by kids calling from the roadside, and that's brilliant to see.

Sam has definitely increased interest. The challenge now is to harness it.

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