March 19, 2021 0 Comments
Words by Shane Stokes
Photos by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images.
He was the best sprinter in 2020 and has continued in the same fashion thus far this season. Sam Bennett has four victories to his credit this year and with some solid performances on lumpier terrain too, he heads into Milan-San Remo as one of the favourites. But with a number of explosive, in-form riders set to animate the Poggio, can a sprinter still win the historic Classic?
Sam Bennett showed his speed in winning the opening stage of the 2021 Paris-Nice. Photo © Bas Czerwinski (Getty Images)
Were Sam Bennett to blaze across the Milan-San Remo finish line first on Saturday, it would be an emotive angle to say that watching Sean Kelly win the same race was one of the main inspirations for him to take up cycling. Both come from Carrick-on-Suir in Ireland; both are, or were, sprinters who were also able to handle other terrain.
The image of Bennett glued to the TV screen as Sean Kelly attacked on the descent of the Poggio in the 1992 edition is a powerful one. Picturing him watching his compatriot taking enormous risks on the hairpin-littered descent down into San Remo, reeling in the solo leader Moreno Argentin and then beating the Italian in a sprint would be an enticing story line for the media.
It would also be completely inaccurate. Our memories tend to shrink time, creating a presumption that past events were more recent than they really were. It may not seem to be the case to those who watched the race, but Kelly triumphed a full 29 years ago. Bennett was only 17 months old at the time.
It would be many years later before he discovered the sport of cycling. And, as he explained after winning a stage of the 2019 Vuelta a España, other riders were more prominent to him in the early days.
Asked by Eurosport who his inspiration was coming into the sport, he admitted that his countryman wasn’t at the forefront. “It should be Sean Kelly, but unfortunately when I was younger, Sean Kelly was just a sports centre,” he said in half-jest, making an abstract reference to the fitness centre named after Kelly in Carrick on Suir.
“I didn’t realise how great Sean was until I went abroad. When I raced those races, I would ask ‘how many times did he win this?’ then I realised how amazing he was.
“When I was growing up, it was Tom Boonen and Robbie McEwen on the scene. They were the guys I was really watching.”
Fast forward three decades and Bennett will start the 2021 Milan-San Remo as one of the favourites. He enjoyed his best-ever season last year, winning two stages and the green jersey in the Tour de France. Thus far this year he has only consolidated the perception that he is the best sprinter in the sport. He has competed in two events, namely the UAE Tour and Paris-Nice, and underlined his speed in both of those. He took two stage wins in the former and then replicated that feat in the French WorldTour race.
However Bennett’s tipped status is not just down to his speed in the bunch gallops. He pushed hard on the lumpy stages towards the end of Paris-Nice, vying to take another victory on the tough stage to Biot. And while he cracked on the difficult run-in to the line, he was prominent for far longer than his sprint rivals.
Bennett continued to push himself on the more mountainous final two days; on stage seven, he was one of 13 riders who broke clear on an early category two climb. Once in the breakaway, he did much of the pace-setting to try to help his teammate Mattia Cattaneo (Deceuninck-Quick-Step). He went deep again on the hilly final stage, finishing a very solid 38th.
As he explained afterwards, his intention was to use those final stages to build condition for Milan-San Remo. The Classic is characterised by a very undulating finale, and having good endurance plus solid climbing legs will be vital for anyone hoping to challenge.
“I am pretty happy with my form,” Bennett told Conquista this week. “It is obviously good for the confidence having some wins already this year, but it just means that everything is going in the right direction and doesn’t mean that I need to relax now. I need to keep the focus and keep driving for the next races.
“I just hope I can continue in this shape and that we will have a bit of luck in San Remo.”
Bennett’s second stage win of the 2021 Paris-Nice was his fourth victory of 2021. Photo © Bas Czerwinski (Getty Images)
‘One of those races every sprinter wants to win”
Bennett has long been clear about his career goals, plus the fact that the Italian Classic ranks very highly in those. He laid out targets several years ago. These included at least one stage win in the Tour de France (achieved), the green jersey in the Tour de France (ditto) and taking the sprint finish in Paris on the Champs Elysees (also ticked off).
Remaining targets including winning Milan-San Remo and, if a future course profile is suited to his abilities, the world road championships.
So what is it about the Classic that so appeals to him? “It is the first monument of the year,” he tells Conquista. “I think it is maybe the only one that sprinters have a chance of getting to the end of [in contention]. It just seems to be a pretty special race, the way it comes down the coastline.
“I suppose it is one that I feel that could be within the capabilities on the right day, when everything goes right. It is one of those races every sprinter wants to win.”
Bennett’s previous best result was 28th two years ago. He was in a group 27 seconds behind the winner Julian Alaphilippe, now his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate. He finished in the chasing bunch on that occasion, and knows what it’s like to hit the Poggio with hopes of a sprint finish.
Bennett’s chances this time around will depend on several factors. He will need to be in prime shape on the day: given that he appears to be in his best-ever form for this time of year, that requirement will – he hopes – be ticked off. He will need luck to avoid crashes and mechanicals. He will need to get his tactics right, saving energy whenever possible and also eating and drinking well as the kilometres tick down.
Bennett will also hope that two less-controllable factors go in his favour. Firstly, that the race is still together or is coming together as the peloton speeds into the final five kilometres. Secondly, that any attacks on the Poggio don’t get too far ahead, and that he (and ideally one or more teammates) stays close to the leaders over the top. Thirdly, that the weather cooperates: a headwind on the Poggio should help keep things together in the finale and boost the chances of a group finish.
In short, many elements need to come together on the day. But what does the 1986 and 1992 winner Sean Kelly think about Bennett’s prospects?
“He is looking good. On the hilly stages in Paris-Nice, he was in there for a long time,” Kelly told Conquista. “He looked comfortable…even when he got dropped, you could see he wasn’t at the total end of his energy. I think he is in a real good position to do a good race, maybe to win Milan-San Remo.
“The only problem is you have Van der Poel, Wout Van Aert, Alaphilippe and those guys. When they hit the Poggio, they climb like motorbikes now, it is just the explosive power they have. If they hit it on the Poggio in the final kilometre, final 1500 metres, you really need to be a super guy to be able to follow.
“Will there be enough riders there to chase them down, and not allow them to take enough of an advantage to stay away until the finish?”
He is clear about what Bennett needs to do if he is to challenge for the win. “Sam will just have to ride the Poggio in the top 20, sit back there in that 12th or 15th position. When the guys attack, you don’t have to accelerate as much as if you are in the first two or three. So that elastic effect is not as much, it doesn’t kill your legs as much.
“Hopefully there will be a headwind on the Poggio. I think that will be very important. If that is the case, well then I think it makes it more difficult for one, two or three guys to attack and go away. That could have a big outcome on the race.
“There will always be guys who will keep the pace real high and not allow those attacks, and if there are big attacks, they won’t get enough of an advantage to go all the way to the finish.”
The Known Unknowns question this week relates to Bennett’s chances. Can he do everything right, and remain close enough to the likes of Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe to sprint for the win? And, if he does, will he have enough left in the tank to reach the line first? We’ll see the answer on Saturday afternoon.
Statistically speaking, the past ten editions suggest that there is a 50 percent chance that a group of ten or more riders will be together at the finish line. The biggest such group was 31 riders in 2016, with 26 in 2015, 25 in 2014 and 19 in 2018.
What we can say is the bigger the group, the higher the chances for the specialist sprinters. Once the numbers dwindle, it is more and more likely that those left in contention at the line will be explosive attackers who shed the others on the Poggio.
Bennett will hope that a solid-sized group is there at the finish, and that he has the legs to beat them all to the line.
“In general the race is won by strong men,” he recognises. “After so many kilometres, somebody that strong will still be able to sprint.”
That physical requirement contributes to the prestige of Milan-San Remo, and makes victory all the more attractive on a rider’s palmarès. “It is a race that you want to be able to say that you won.”
Countless others feel the same way, and that is what will make Saturday’s race so competitive, so entertaining and so unpredictable.
Analysis of past decade of Milan-San Remo:
Year/winner/team, size of lead group listed as same time at the finish line:
2011: Matt Goss (HTC-HighRoad) - 7
2012: Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEdge) - 3
2013: Gerard Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) – 7
2014: Alexander Kristoff (Team Katusha) - 25
2015: John Degenkolb (Giant – Alpecin) - 26
2016: Arnaud Démare (FDJ) - 31
2017: Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) – 3
2018: Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) – 19
2019: Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) – 10
2020: Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) - 2
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