Sam Bennett: ‘I’m the same rider as 2020, I just have to find my mojo

Former Tour de France green jersey winner speaks of his happiness at Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale, as he looks ahead to a Tour return after four years away

Clock14:30, Saturday 16th March 2024
Sam Bennett has 10 Grand Tour stage victories to his name, but he is not done yet

© Sean Hardy

Sam Bennett has 10 Grand Tour stage victories to his name, but he is not done yet

Gathering multiple top 10 results in both French stage races he has ridden so far in 2024, Sam Bennett looks on the right track as he builds towards a return to the Tour de France this summer with his new team, Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale.

The Irishman may not have got the dream start he wanted at the Tour de la Provence, coming up just short of victory on the final day, but strong showings both for himself and on behalf of his teammates at Paris-Nice will give the WorldTeam the confidence that they have invested wisely in the sprinter. Besides, the 33-year-old is not yet in his peak condition.

“I haven’t had the time I needed to get the gym work done this off-season,” Bennett recently admitted to GCN. “I needed a bit more, but I think my engine is stronger, the weight is about the same but [with] the peak power I just have to get back to the gym.

“I need a few weeks, months to [get] that peak to where I need it. It’s not far off.”

Sitting down to speak with GCN on the eve of the UAE Tour, Bennett had not long since arrived at the hotel the riders would be in for the next few days. As his teammates rushed around him to gather their luggage and head for the check-in desk, there was an air of tranquillity around the Irishman. He has been there, seen that and got the postcard.

This was to be his sixth UAE Tour in as many years, a race in which he has taken three victories in the past, but he was up against it to repeat the feat this time around. Bennett’s transfer from Bora-Hansgrohe to Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale was confirmed at the end of November, and he notes that getting settled over the winter cost him the necessary time in the gym.

“It was changing teams, getting to know the strength and conditioning coach, the normal coaches, getting my programme, getting everything ready. The season came quicker than I wanted! It will come definitely by May, but I just haven’t had the time to do it. That’s the one thing that got away from me and the one thing I need.”

In hindsight, Bennett’s performances in the UAE Tour and Paris-Nice make a lot of sense. As the 33-year-old noted, he is fit and firing to go, hence his notable performances working for Ben O’Connor in the crosswinds at the UAE Tour, and for Felix Gall when the race was on at Paris-Nice. But without that peak power, there have been a few occasions where his sprint has been there or thereabouts — sixth, eighth and fourth at Paris-Nice — but without nailing that first win of the season.

Undeterred, however, Bennett has already seen enough to know that he made the right decision in moving to Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale, a transfer that caught many by surprise last year, but came after a disappointing couple of years back in the Bora-Hansgrohe ranks.

Read more: Sam Bennett: I’ve a chip on my shoulder with how my career has unfolded

‘I know I can get the best out of myself in this team’

As a youngster, Bennett spent five months as a trainee with Française des Jeux, the French WorldTeam now known as Groupama-FDJ, but Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale presented the Irishman with his first experience of being a full-time member of a French outfit. Speaking to GCN less than two months into the season, Bennett was already full of admiration for his team’s staff and practises.

“The team is really warm and welcoming, they’re doing so much to help me and to give me another chance in the sport to reach my level. I’m really grateful for this opportunity and it’s been great,” he said.

“We have fantastic bikes with Van Rysel and the team has been really professional and really on it. Sometimes people say that French teams are more old school, but they’re really on it here. They’re really up with the latest tech, with the marginal gains and it is great to see. I know I can get the best out of myself in this team.”

Bennett is far from the first rider to note the team’s new equipment partner Van Rysel, with many riders and members of staff keen to express their delight to GCN in the first few major races of the season. It's the done thing for riders to praise their sponsors, but in this case, everyone seems particularly sincere.

Nonetheless, Bennett’s praise prompts us to ask the Irishman to expand further on why Decathlon’s in-house brand has left such a good impression.

“This is not pointing at any brand in particular, it could be a bloody tyre brand, it could be any type of brand,” he is keen to note. “But often a company doesn’t look to hear the feedback, they ask for feedback but they don’t generally want it because they see it more as criticism.

“Even though there are no negative things to say about Van Rysel, they’re so willing to listen and they’re hanging on every last word, you feel that your input is important and then you want to give them as much feedback as you can. They’re so interested and invested in you that you enjoy it and then you feel really part of both the bike and the brand.”

It is not hard to see that Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale have turned a real corner in 2024. From a French team that had plenty of history but was stagnating as AG2R Citroën, the introduction of Decathlon as co-title sponsor, Van Rysel as their bike manufacturer and Swiss Side as a technical partner has led to much-improved performances.

Bennett is yet to get off the mark, but both O’Connor and Benoît Cosnefroy have a pair of victories between them, whilst the likes of Valentin Paret-Peintre, Dorian Godon and Nicolas Prodhomme have all impressed. Things are clicking into place for the team and as Bennett notes, the riders appreciate their equipment and in turn, Van Rysel appreciates the feedback that is heading its way.

Read more:

Life as the experienced teammate treating Bennett well

Feeling valued is an important part of the story with Bennett and Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale. After his Tour de France green jersey-winning debut season with Deceuninck-Quick Step, the two-time stage winner was ostracised by team boss Patrick Lefevere in his second and final season with the Belgian squad. This was followed by two unfortunate seasons with Bora-Hansgrohe.

Bennett had made his name riding for the German team, winning three stages at the 2018 Giro d’Italia, for example, but his return never really clicked into gear, bar a couple of stage victories at the 2022 Vuelta a España. With his stock somewhat devalued as a top-tier sprinter, Bennett needed a team who believed in his abilities, and in turn, he took his time with finding his next move.

Read more: Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale are a team transformed

After initial interest and conversations with the now-folded Human Powered Health among others, the Irishman opted for Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale, and making his debut at the Tour de la Provence, only Larry Warbasse was Bennett’s elder in the team. It allowed the 33-year-old the chance to settle into his role as a leader and mentor of those younger than him.

“I was sat in the back watching things happen and then it’s like, first of all, I feel old because everybody is so young! But I realised that I had a lot of experience which could help the younger guys and I wanted to help and I wanted the whole team to grow as a unit,” he said.

“When I saw the other young guys hanging onto what I was saying and listening, I was really happy that they appreciated my input. They weren’t angry that I had something to say, because it wasn’t anything against anyone, but I was just sharing an input and helping us to ride better as a team. It worked quite well and I could feel the team progress through that weekend.”

A Tour de France return awaits after three missed opportunities

Of course, the faith of Bennett’s team bosses is what sold Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale to the 33-year-old. After the super successful 2020 Tour de France, Bennett has not returned to the race due to a mixture of injuries and missing out on selection, so the promise of riding the Tour for the first time in four years was vital in deciding his next team.

“I haven’t given up, that’s why I waited and got the best opportunity, the best support and the chance to go back to the Tour. I’ve got the best equipment that I could possibly get and I need to go back and prove myself, that it wasn’t a fluke.”

Needless to say, nobody flukes their way to a green jersey at the biggest race in the world. In fact, the 2020 Tour de France saw Bennett in a rich vein of form and at the peak of his powers after two lightning-hot seasons.

“I always say my strongest year was 2019. I had like 26 sprints, 23 podiums and 14 wins — I was there all the time,” reflected Bennett. “2020 I started off and as bad as Covid was, it saved my ass! [The year] started off and it wasn’t great, and I had time to go back, train, reset and go again, and then I won the green jersey.

“That was really a special moment in my career, I grew there and I had momentum.”

Read more: Sean Kelly: Sam Bennett and Caleb Ewan can draw inspiration from Mark Cavendish’s comeback

Momentum has rarely been on Bennett’s side since those halcyon days. His troubles at Quick-Step were well documented and as he has previously explained, a Bora-Hansgrohe homecoming was besieged by injuries and misfortune. However, the Irishman believes he is the same rider as the one who romped to the pinnacle of the sport four years ago.

“There’s not much different,” Bennett answered when asked to compare his current shape to that of Sam Bennett in 2020.

“I’m always hard on myself. But I’m still the same guy, I’m still the same rider as 2020, I just have to find my mojo.”

With the support of his new welcoming teammates, the faith of the bosses at Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale and several promising performances in his few races to date, Bennett appears to be on the right track after some unfortunate years. As he demonstrated at the Vuelta a little over 18 months ago, the Irishman still has the turn of speed that made him the best sprinter in the world for a period in 2020. Now the results need to follow.

To read more of our exclusive interviews with the world's best riders, check out this tab on the GCN website.

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