Champs-Élysées win puts Sam Bennett in a class of his own

Though Sean Kelly won four green jerseys, Erik Zabel six, and Peter Sagan seven, not one of them ever won on the Champs-Élysées
Champs-Élysées win puts Sam Bennett in a class of his own

Sam Bennett celebrates his green jersey win on the podium. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Twelve months ago Sam Bennett was the winningest rider in the professional peloton and the standout sprinter in a sport stacked with fastmen, but he was far from content.

He was controversially overlooked for both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, and it became painfully obvious that despite 11 wins, he was the third-choice sprinter at Bora-Hansgrohe in 2019.

That he went to the Vuelta a España in September - the poor relation of the aforementioned Grand Tours - won two stages, and finished second in four more, did nothing to quieten the voices in his head that told him his time was up at the Peter Sagan-led German team.

WorldTour stage wins in the UAE Tour, Paris-Nice, the Tour of Turkey, the Critérium du Dauphiné, and the BinckBank Tour, as well as other triumphs in the Vuelta a San Juan Internacional and the Irish road race championships did nothing to convince team management that Sam was a better bet than three-time world champion Sagan for a leadership role at the Tour de France.

The official line read Sagan was chasing a record seventh green jersey at the sport's biggest race, and in truth, it was a very valid argument for choosing the Slovak over the man from Carrick-on-Suir.

But there was no comfort in that for the fastest sprinter on the planet who still had not won a stage in the Tour, and he was headed for his late 20s.

In one bruising interview subsequent to that omission, Sam, with a stiff upper lip, said he felt “disposable”.

“I think I am appreciated in that when they send me to any race I get a win; any team would love that. But I feel that, yeah, I am disposable…” 

He knew it, and everybody else knew it; his time was up and the most glorious chapter in his career so far would come to an abrupt end in rather acrimonious circumstances.

Break-ups are never easy and after six glorious years together, Bennett left Sagan and Bora-Hansgrohe and sought possible suitors among which the obvious choice was the Belgian team known as the Wolf Pack, Deceuninck-Quick Step.

Fast forward one year and Sam couldn't have scripted it any better if he tried.

Last Friday, the course for the 19th stage was a rolling circuit from Bourg-en-Bresse to Champagnole and though Bennett held the green jersey, Sagan was hot on his wheels some 52 points back in the classification.

There were enough points on the finish line for Sagan to overtake Bennett if he won, but against the backdrop of how the latter left the team, there was only going to be one winner.

Bennett clung like a limpet to Sagan's wheel, and after the Irishman pipped him on the line to extend his lead in the race for the coveted jersey, he unleashed a roar that could have been heard back in Carrick.

This Tour de France has been likened to the drama-filled 1989 edition where American Greg LeMond claimed victory by just eight seconds on the final day from French favourite Laurent Fignon.

Indeed, the battle for the yellow jersey has been one of the most dramatic in recent memory with the issue only being settled on Saturday's uphill time-trial won by Tadej Pogacar.

But the battle for green has been no less enthralling, not least because of the central protagonists; Sagan and Bennett. Charismatic versus coy. A thunderous personality versus a discreet, self-deprecating soul. A 12-time Tour de France stage winner and serial green jersey winner, against someone chasing his first of both.

Kurt Bogaerts is a man who knows Bennett since he was a prolific junior on the domestic scene, and he recalls a conversation he had with Sam just before the Tour began in Nice three weeks ago.

“Sam and I talk a lot and we go back a long way. I had a feeling from speaking to him before this Tour that he would win a stage, at least.

“The green jersey might not have been part of the original plan, but that has maybe been the icing on the cake.

“He said a few things to me before the Tour and one of them was, 'I am going to figure it out'. He didn't say it (that he would win a stage) straight out because he is too modest for that, but he has developed more as a person and a rider in the last year.” 

The wait for a win finally ended on stage 10 when Bennett thundered into Isle de Re ahead of an all-star cast of sprinters that of course featured his erstwhile rival Caleb Ewan and Peter Sagan for good measure.

“For me, this was the confirmation that a journey was over and a pathway we started many years ago was completed,” continued an emotional Bogaerts who took Bennett under his wing at the An Post Chain Reaction team in 2011.

“If his career stops tomorrow he can look back with full satisfaction and with no failure. I have always liked Sam as a person and that is why I persisted with him when he had many low points.

“He is a nice guy and I never had a doubt in my mind that he would make it.

“I had full faith, always. The last few years of his career he was very determined to get every last ounce of potential out of himself. And he has.

“He needs me less and less and that's beautiful to witness, that he has found his way in the sport. I was quite confident it would happen, but with cycling it is never easy.” 

If relief was the overriding emotion that triggered a torrent of tears for Sam after Stage 10, elation is the word that encapsulates Sunday night's stage win under the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe.

No Irish rider has led a Tour de France classification since Sean Kelly won the points (green) and sprints (red) jerseys on the final stage in 1989.

Since then three Roches have ridden the Tour – Stephen, Laurence, and Nicolas – as well as Kelly, Martin Earley, Dan Martin, and Mark Scanlon, while Paul Kimmage ended his career on the 1989 edition.

Though Kelly won four green jerseys, Erik Zabel six, and Sagan seven, not one of them ever won on the Champs-Élysées.

Sam Bennett, therefore, is in a class of his own.

When asked how he'll spend the next few days, Sam, quick as a flash, replied, “I'll probably be recovering from a hangover… no, I'll just enjoy the moment and I have a funny feeling the team will hit me with a race programme and I'll have to keep working!” 

They'll celebrate it in Carrick, though.

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