The resumption of hostilities following the first rest day brought with it a few reminders that the Tour de France is not taking place in ordinary times. We woke to a series of reassuring releases confirming that all riders had tested negative for Covid-19, and one informing us that race director (and hand-shaker-in-chief), Christian Prudhomme, had tested positive.
Aside from that, it ought to have been a “normal” day at the Tour. The stage profile was as proverbially “pan flat” as it’s possible to imagine. Yet the altimetry did not tell the whole story. As the course hugged the coast, twisting this way and turning that, switching from wide roads to narrow, it seemed designed to test every rider’s mental toughness.
None more so than Sam Bennett. The Irishman needed a win.
Which is why you’d have forgiven him for letting the intermediate sprint go, and focussing on the finale. Instead he rode smart, sucking himself onto Sagan’s wheel at the moment of truth and rolling across the line behind him. Thus Bennett was able to ensure his former team-mate could not extend his lead in the points competition by much, while managing not to expend valuable reserves.
He last rode the Tour just over four years ago. Then an up-and-coming sprinter riding for pro-conti invitees Bora-Argon 18, that time he didn’t even get the chance to test himself against Kittel, Cavendish and co. Caught up in a crash during the Stage 1 sprint finish at Utah Beach, as well as the resulting injuries he carried the label of lanterne rouge for all but a few of the race’s 21 stages. Plenty of riders in better shape would have packed. Many did. He, however, battled on, seeing survival as a worthwhile goal in itself, recognising the contribution that completion would make to his future.
“I was telling myself, even when it was hard, go five more minutes. I broke it up; I said ‘right, I’ll get to the first rest day, that’s the biggest block I’ll have to do.’”
This time he started the Tour as one of the riders to beat on the flat, wearing the Quick Step “1” and loaded with all the weight of expectation that accompanies that designation.
It’s widely believed that sprinters like to get the first win of a stage race out of the way early, that the longer they go without, the fewer opportunities there are, and the harder that first one becomes to get. Conversely, get your first and the next one is easier, because the pressure a rider puts on himself is less. Bennett’s friend Caleb Ewan claimed his on Stage 3.
The Irishman has 47 career wins to his name. He knows how good he is but, at the same time, he doesn’t often believe it. His last victory is, to him, no guarantee that it will not be just that - his last victory.
All of which goes some way to explaining his reaction afterwards. His post-stage interview with Seb Piquet was a must-watch: “You never think it will happen and then it does,” he said. “I thought I’d be in floods of tears but I’m in shock.” Moments later the tears indeed began to flow.
Even then he was second guessing his decisions in the sprint. “I thought I’d left it too late. I thought I was in too big a gear.” No, and no.
He hadn't been able to shake Ewan from his wheel, and the Australian had once again sought to use him as a slingshot, but Bennett was just faster, and first where it mattered.
Two years ago, not long after the Giro at which he took his very first Grand Tour stages, we sat down with him in London. We asked whether he felt like he’d arrived, like he belonged with the best. “In one sense, yes,” he replied, “but you need that Tour de France win, don’t you?”
Well Sam, you’ve got it now. What do you reckon?