Sam Bennett's legacy: 'The Roche/Kelly days aren't gone, they just have a new name'

Sam Bennett's legacy: 'The Roche/Kelly days aren't gone, they just have a new name'

Sam Bennett, wearing the best sprinter's green jersey, with Slovenia's Tadej Pogacar, centre, who won the overall yellow jersey, the best climber's polka dot jersey, and the best young rider's white jersey. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Sam Bennett wasn’t the only one struggling to digest what he had just done. Matt McKerrow was having difficulty comprehending the sheer scale of the achievement 24 hours later but Cycling Ireland’s CEO did have a very clear sense of what it could mean for the sport in this country.

Cycling was already picking up serious speed. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown has prompted an extra 250,000 Irish people to don their helmets and take to the roads so Bennett’s achievements come as an extra injection of pace in what was an already blistering spell.

“We all say it, that sport needs heroes, and this is the classic example.” said McKerrow. 

The sport needs role models. And right now that’s our role model right there. In lights. It tells you that if you are little Johnny or little Mary out riding your bike there’s nothing to say it isn’t possible. Whether you’re from Carrick-On-Suir or wherever you’re from, that’s where it can go.

“Maybe there is some kid getting on a bike somewhere in Ireland this week who may get to be that good. If they only ride to and from school and enjoy that, and they don’t have to take the bus and clog up the motorways when they get to college, then that’s a good thing.”

Timing is indeed everything.

Cycling Ireland published their latest four-year strategic plan just a handful of months ago. Among the key aims was the need to ‘inspire the people of Ireland’. There have been other success stories, on the road, on the track and on the Para-cycling side as well, but Bennett’s performances in France this last three weeks have pretty much ticked that box already.

McKerrow has seen this before. He was innovation manager with New Zealand Sport when Eliza McCartney won a bronze medal in the pole vault at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 and kickstarted a craze for bendy poles and athletic’s version of aerial acrobatics.

“Nobody was in to pole vault until that happened. Suddenly Athletics New Zealand couldn’t source enough poles for kids in athletics clubs. That’s what we hope will happen here and we have some really good junior programmes that we run: Sprocket Rocket and Gearing Up.

“What we need to do now is gear up and be ready to provide those opportunities and get our clubs ready so that when potential cyclists come along to join their club we have the programmes in club so they can get involved and stay involved.”

That this has happened mid-Covid isn’t ideal in a commercial sense. Money is tight and going to get tighter as the economic impact of the pandemic digs in. Then again, maybe Bennett’s success will help cycling stand out from the crowd when showing their wares.

Cycling Ireland has taken on two sponsors this year already and the hope is that the sport is better positioned to take advantage of their days in the sun than when Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were in their pomp.

Twenty-one years separated Roche’s last Tour de France stage win, at La Bourboule in 1992, from the next Irish triumph in 2013 when Dan Martin topped the podium at Bagnères-de-Bigorre but similarly large gaps still exist in the sport’s infrastructure here.

Talk of a velodrome which would double up as a national badminton centre has been rife in recent years but no green light has been signalled just yet. McKerrow is confident that it will happen “sooner rather than later” though nothing is certain thanks to the coronavirus.

As for the project’s worth, there isn’t any doubt.

“The velodrome does an awful lot. I have seen that happen in New Zealand as well. It wasn’t the only velodrome that they have but when the Cambridge velodrome was built down there it really became a hub for all cycling.

“Yes, it developed their track programme massively but it gave them a home of cycling, if you like, where different regions could train and come in and be on a velodrome. The sense was it was much bigger than that.”

The other glaring omission from cycling’s current framework is the Rás Tailteann. Cancelled in 2019 for want of a title sponsor, it was one of the thousands of events to fall victim to Covid this year and McKerrow admits that it’s return is of paramount importance.

The Rás is a vehicle for domestic riders to aspire and an opportunity to bring some of the world’s elite cyclists to these shores and, by so doing, light the imagination of kids up and down its route. Bennett’s success will have to keep those home fires burning for now.

“Sam’s win has captured a lot of hearts and minds,” McKerrow explained. “People maybe see that the Roche/Kelly days aren’t gone. They’re still here, they just have a new name.”

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