The course for the European Championship men’s road race stretched for 209.4 kilometres and all but the last 400 or so metres of it went just perfectly as far as Sam Bennett and Ireland’s hopes of a medal were concerned. It’s not that the final stretch was a disaster, just that one or two millisecond moments proved to be the difference between a win or a podium place and his eventual fifth-placed finish.
The slimmest of margins.
“The circuit was very dangerous,” Bennett said, “and it was going to be a bit of a lottery. Because it wasn’t such a hard day there were a lot of fresh legs there in the final. I think I rode a very smart final, kept on Belgium. They were very well organised, then I saw my (Bora-Hansgrohe) teammate Danny Van Poppel, knew he’s a really good last man.
“He had Fabio Jakobson right on his wheel and when they kicked past me I thought ‘right, change of plan’. I left Arnaud Démare come in on that wheel and I should have taken it back, but I really thought he’d go early. If he did, that would have given me a bike length and the slipstream on Fabio would have catapulted me up. Bit of a risk, but in the end it didn’t happen.”
And that was that. A split-second decision and it was done.
He couldn’t stress enough the fact that everything had been done to make something special happen. He thanked Cycling Ireland, team manager Nicholas Roche, the staff, the mechanics and his teammates – Ryan Mullen, Rory Townsend, Eddie Dunbar and Matthew Taggart – who had kept him fresh and primed for as long as possible.
Dunbar and Taggart had stayed with him on the earlier climbs when the pace went up, then Dunbar gravitated to the front so that they could have some presence and position approaching the five-lap urban circuit. Townsend and Mullen took up much of the slack from there, doing the dirty work so he didn’t have to.
Some of the bigger nations had teams of seven and even eight riders compared to Ireland’s five but Bennett’s take was that this compact unit worked in their favour given it proved easier to work as a smaller unit as the unwieldy peloton entered the city limits. Still, if there are regrets to this then there is plenty to be taken from it too.
It was only last September when the injury that cost him the chance to back up his green jersey success at the 2020 Tour de France finally cleared up and there have been two subsequent injuries, to the other knee, that set him back this year. So, there remains the sense of a way to go as he makes his Grand Tour return in the Vuelta a España next week.
“Yeah, just once it clicks it will just take off. Like, at the end of the day I’m only human. I was injured and I was off the bike for so long that I kind of forgot I was at such a high level until I was trying to get it back. It took me years to get there, it’s not just going to come back in a few months. It’s taken the year.
“I can see it coming, I can feel that it’s nearly there, I just need a last little bit and then it will be ready to go take off. Regardless of what happens in the Vuelta – I’m pretty sure we should get a stage there – but it should set me up for the winter and come back stronger next year.”