Pedal Punditry #7 | Sam Bennett found the 'luck of the Irish' in Dunkerque and got himself a Tour de France ticket

Sam Bennett is one of the most prestigious sprinters in the peloton and over the past few years, subject of a lot of controversy. Despite planning on racing the Tour de France every year, the last time he participated was in 2020 when he won the green jersey. But in 2024, he should make a return with Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale.

Although there is more to this story than what would initially seem. Sam Bennett's move into the French World Tour outfit came after the retirement of Greg van Avermaet. The former Olympic champion's salary on the overall team budget was a huge slice, and his departure from the team allowed for new signings such as Bennett - the new head sprinter of the team - and Victor Lafay, stage winner at the Tour de France and uprising French star.

In 2020 Bennett won two stages and the green jersey at the Tour, with the support of (the now called) Soudal - Quick-Step. A dominant performance from the Irish sprinter who showed himself among the best in the world. But every year since has seen obstacles that, in one way or another, saw him removed from the lineup.

Sam Bennett's stint with Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale started off the wrong away, but has taken a sharp turn in May. @Sirotti
Sam Bennett's stint with Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale started off the wrong away, but has taken a sharp turn in May. @Sirotti

2021: After a superb start to the season with Quick-Step, netting several wins all the way into May, Bennett suffered a knee injury. This then saw him out of the Tour but most importantly, saw Patrick Lefevere enter a public spat with his own rider - a familar scene, if I may say. Lefevere eventually criticized Bennett over his lack of willpower to train back to his best level and Bennett only resumed racing in September, not finishing any of the one-day races which he started late in the season.

2022: Bennett moves to BORA - hansgrohe, a star signing, which, combined with the signing of soon-to-be world class leadout man Danny van Poppel, could be the new dominant combination within cycling's sprint ranks. But Bennett never saw his form back. The knee injury of the previous year held him back in terms of form. He won Eschborn-Frankfurt in what was a motivating day for the German team and was his first win... But he did not improve from there on. He was still expected to race the Tour, but was a last-minute removal from the lineup. Danny van Poppel and his leadout still participated in the race - whilst Bennett then did bounce back to win two Vuelta a España stages.

2023: Bennett's contract year. The pressure is on. The year starts perfectly with a victory on the first day at the Vuelta a San Juan but it then stagnates. The Irishman shows some results throughout the spring but nothing too good. He races the Criterium du Dauphiné ahead of the Tour so has to work on his form and climbing, providing relatively good feedback in fact. He was set to make a return to the Tour after two years of absence but... BORA - hansgrohe thought otherwise. Bennett was once again removed, as he did not show the necessary form according to the team. BORA focused on the GC ambitions of Jai Hindley whilst providing freedom for Danny van Poppel. What could've been an ideal duo on the sprints ended up as bad as one could've expected... At the Tour of Britain van Poppel was very clearly frustrated with Bennett's lack of punch in the finales and often didn't bother to lead him out, but instead both sprinted for themselves.

The writing was on the wall, the team lost confidence in it's sprinter and Bennett was on his way out. There was little that could be done to improve him after two years where the sprinter showed very rare glimpses of good form. His contract was one of the big questions of last winter, but eventually he decided to sign with Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale. An unlikely destination for an Irish sprinter who was looking to bounce back to the top level, in a team that had very little sprinting tradition. But it was a ticket to stay in the World Tour, in a team where he could be a leader.

Leadout men could include Edvald Boasson Hagen, Pierre Gautherat and Andrea Vendrame. Not a match for the top leadouts of the world. Form and confidence were also a question for the Irishman. He almost won on the final day of the Tour de la Provence - a necessary win - but that was not possible and at the UAE Tour's many bunch sprints, he failed to crack a Top10. Bad signs. At Paris-Nice this improved slightly with a few good results but no wins. At the minor Régio Pays de la Loire in April he was hoping to get a win against a modest field but did not manage to,

The situation was dire. Decathlon were - and are - having an amazing season with an incredible amount of wins, on the Top3 of UCI points scored... A lot is said about the Van Rysel bikes, but the truth is that overall it's a rejuvenated team that is performing way above expectations with the riders it already had. Neither Bennett or Lafay showed much early in the season, but instead the likes of Paul Lapeira, Valentin Paret-Peintre and Pierre Gautherat made the jump to very strong performances; whilst the likes of Dorian Godon, Andrea Vendrame and Aurélien Paret-Peintre also significantly boosted the results from the core of the team.

Sam Bennett wins stage 2 of the 4 Jours de Dunkerque 2024. @Sirotti
Sam Bennett wins stage 2 of the 4 Jours de Dunkerque 2024. @Sirotti

Bennett? Nowhere to be seen, until this past week... If you have been keeping an eye on the Giro d'Italia you will not have seen it, but across the border in France, Bennett has won no less than four out of six stages at the 4 Jours de Dunkerque. And the overall classification! The Irishman has finally taken the step and gotten his confidence back. He joined the team's streak of success in 2024 and bounced back in style, winning non-stop.

Of course, it is important to point out that this is not a World Tour race and did not have the strongest of competition. Bennett didn't defeat the likes of Jasper Philipsen or Jonathan Milan, but you cannot kick down a rider who won four stages in a week, finished second in another - only centimeters away from the win, snatched by breakaway rider Warre Vangheluwe - and third in the first day of the race.

But Bennett, most notably, also won the overall classification and the queen stage up to Mont Cassel. For the hardcore cycling fans, you will know that this stage goes up the cobbled climb quite a few times in a final circuit that is a constant roller-coaster. This is not a sprint stage, but one for the classics specialists. Bennett resisted all the attacks and won in style atop a small ascent, cementing his form and confirming that it was not just in the sprints that he was riding. Overall and points classification in the bag too - five wins in a week, in total.

Hence, Bennett is en route to the Tour de France. His form is where it should be, and he will race the Criterium Du Dauphiné soon to contest against bigger riders. In any way, Decathlon is going to the Tour with ambitions of participating in a sprint and having devoted a few of it's leaders to the Giro d'Italia, Bennett will have a clear path. Felix Gall will head the team's GC ambitions but only three riders seem certain to participate: Gall; Dorian Godon and Oliver Naesen. Bennett fits here like a glove, and should have Naesen's help in the leadouts as he had this week.

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