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

‘I don’t want to be seen as one of those sprinters who left Quick-Step and couldn’t win anymore’ Irish rider tells GCN

Clock10:37, Tuesday 5th December 2023
Down but not out: Sam Bennett is looking to bounce back in 2024

© Velo Collection (TDW) / Getty Images

Down but not out: Sam Bennett is looking to bounce back in 2024

Sam Bennett’s return to Bora-Hansgrohe at the start of 2022 was supposed to shepherd in a period of success for the Irish sprinter with hopes of Tour de France stage wins and consistent victories after the team had built arguably the world’s best lead-out train around him.

Unfortunately for the German team and their Irish sprinter, even their best-laid plans were left shattered with injuries and inconsistency plaguing the rider’s spell on the squad.

At the end of this season, and at 33 years old, Bennett was deemed surplus to requirements at Bora, with the team deciding to develop their stage racing core and build their sprinting efforts around a younger, and more affordable option.

Read more: Bora-Hansgrohe confirm arrival of 'inspirational' Primož Roglič

Bora’s loss, however, could be Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale’s gain with the French squad picking up Bennett on the transfer market and making him their marquee signing.

Results in 2024 will judge whether the move pays off but in this exclusive interview with GCN, Bennett talks about his hunger and drive to regain his place as one of the best sprinters in the world.

The Irishman also discusses his ambitions, leaving Bora behind, and why he’s racing with a chip on his shoulder as he looks to prove the doubters wrong.

GCN: How are your feelings after the whole team change and signing for Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale?

Sam Bennett: I needed a fresh start and I needed a team where I’d get a good opportunity along with great support, and great bikes, and it’s all come together. Going to the presentation last week, and getting the vibe, it’s motivating. I’ve settled in quite quickly. I might need a bit more French but I’m excited.

Read more: Decathlon unveiled as new title sponsor and bike supplier of AG2R La Mondiale team

GCN: What was it that attracted you to Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale? When you sat down and looked at your options, what was available and why did Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale stand out?

Sam Bennett: My contact was through their coach Stephen Barrett. He’s a fellow Irishman and I talked to him. He had a great vibe around him and that gave me a lot of confidence in him and what he was trying to achieve. I needed to be in a place where I had the best opportunity possible when it came to getting back to the Tour de France. I’m not getting any younger and I’m running out of time to do the Tour so I need to get back there and to try and win. I believe that I still have it in me but I just need a clear runway. I also talked to the bike manufacturer, and I know I’m on one of the best bikes in the world in Specialized but I talked to Van Rysel and I was really excited about their new project and where they wanted to take it. Everything just felt like a good fit.

GCN: What were your options during the summer, when you were looking around? There were rumours of Human Powered Health and a couple of other squads interested. But what was the real lay of the land on the market?

SB: It’s hard because you have all these options but then when break it all down to opportunity, and wages, and money is a factor that you can’t ignore because you have to feed your family, but for everything to click into place there aren’t that many options. If that makes sense. There were some options, but there was one that really stood out, and in such a way that it made the others no longer look like options. And that was Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale. Because you’d talk to other teams, and I know it sounds stupid, but what they want and you want don’t always link up. Of course, I could have made many of those options work but Decathlon AG2R were just the best fit.

GCN: What was it this year, or the past few years, that didn’t quite fit then because you went back to a team in Bora-Hansgrohe, where you had huge success in the past but it didn’t pan out?

SB: I don’t know. If I think about it, I have to go back to when I rejoined the team at the start of 2022. I went there thinking it would be the same as before but of course, it wasn’t. There were these little things that always got in the way, like the injury that I had at the beginning of 2022. I had the right injury at Quick-Step but then just before the 2023 season, I injured my left knee because I was overcompensating. Then I went to the UAE Tour without much training and for the whole first half of the season I was playing catch up. But you just can’t catch up like that. It doesn’t really happen. Then in the second half of the year, I didn’t show myself enough for the Tour de France, and at the time I was heartbroken but looking back I wasn’t good enough. I got myself together, was good at the Vuelta where I won a couple of stages, and then I ended the year with third in Paris-Tours. I was flying that day and had a bloody good day on the bike, but then I had a mixture of things go wrong.

During the winter I fell in the airport trying to get a connection flight so my first sprint in racing or training didn’t happen until I was in Argentina in January. That put me on the back foot, and I couldn’t catch up again. There was no rhythm. Then the Tour came around and I realised I had to be in a place where there was a bit more leeway. Bora is a fantastic team, with fantastic riders but if they’re going for GC a lot I have to look after myself. It just didn’t click the second time around with Bora, even though I really wanted it to and we all fought really hard for it to happen. I never gave up but it just didn’t happen. We just had to go our separate ways.

GCN: When did you sign with Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale?

SB: It was quite late. I think it was the weekend that the story broke about Jumbo-Visma and Soudal Quick-Step potentially merging. I signed just before and I thought ‘thank god’ because there would have been some bloody good riders in the market. We started talking around July or August time. It’s a bit weird at the minute though because it’s like you’ve broken up with the missus but you’re still living in the same house. That's just sport though and I’m excited and happy with how things are going. There are no hard feelings between me and Bora, and I did my absolute best over the last two years. We just couldn’t get it to work, unfortunately.

GCN: Because you’ve been away from the Tour de France for a few years, do you feel like you’ve got something to prove to people? I know it’s a bit of a cliché question, or do you think you’ve got nothing to prove because you’ve already had so much success?

SB: I’ve got a chip on my shoulder.

GCN: With whom or with what?

SB: Just with how my career has unfolded. I was taken out when I was coming into what should have been my best years and I lost them. I have to prove to myself, and to others, that I still have it. I don’t want to be seen as one of those sprinters who left Quick-Step and couldn’t win anymore. I just know that’s not me. There’s still so much that I have to get out of my career and I’m not satisfied yet. Of course, if I retired I could look back at having a fantastic career but I’m not there yet. When it’s time to step away from the sport I need to be able to say to myself that I achieved all the things that I set out to do. I’m not ready for that yet, and even if I can’t accomplish everything I still want to be close.

To come back and win at the Tour… after four years away, that would be amazing. Has it really been that long?

GCN: Since 2020, it’s been four years next summer.

SB: That’s so long. That’s four years of missed opportunities.

GCN: True, but just remember how long Mark Cavendish went without winning a Tour de France stage and then he came back and won again.

SB: He had a few more wins under the belt.

GCN: Also true but think about the years where you were knocking on the door at the Tour and it didn’t quite happen for you. It takes time, sometimes.

SB: That took time, but to just to come back and give my best would be special. Just to come back and be competitive and win stages, I’d be so proud of that.

GCN: I’d like to ask about your lead-out at Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale because I remember speaking to Ryan Mullen at Rouleur in 2019 and he was so excited about being part of this amazing lead-out train at Bora with you. It didn’t quite work out but I’m curious how strong your lead-out train will be next year and what factors will decide who helps you.

SB: It’s a tough one because I do believe that I can be competitive. In 2019 my target was to have one rider with me around 1km to go in sprints. That year I had 26 sprints, 23 podiums and 13 or 14 wins. That method worked. Then at Bora, I was quite privileged and had a full lead-out train. You have to be so strong for that though and in the last two years, the races are all won in the last 50m. The biggest regret that I have was that I wasn’t able to take advantage of that amazing opportunity. But I’m looking forward and I’ll have amazing opportunities with Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale. I think we’ll have Oliver Naesen with me and he’ll be great. There are some other guys but we’ll have to see who wants to do it, who is motivated and who has the potential. We’ll have a competitive team that will get me close enough to try and win.

GCN: Was it ever an option to take one of your lead-out riders from Bora?

SB: I don’t think it was. They were some of my best mates, so settling in at the team might have been easier but by the time I was talking to the team budgets were already set and the roster was almost full. We did try but it wasn’t an option, but I still have faith and belief in those around me.

GCN: Going back to you having a point to prove, does Bora also factor into that given that they went out quite early in the season and signed a younger up-and-coming sprinter for the future [in Sam Welsford]? No criticism of him, but he’s not won a Grand Tour stage yet and they’re building him for the future. Could you not have come back and been that rider for them?

SB: I know I could be that rider but the markets move differently. What the team wants and their ambitions are can change. I don’t want this to come out the wrong way, but you’re going to pay less for a sprinter who hasn’t yet won in a Grand Tour than a sprinter who has had that success. If the funds need to go to GC and the investment in your current sprinter hasn’t seen a good enough return then it’s a logical move. That’s sport, and I understand it. Of course, my ego doesn’t like it and I want to be the top rider who wins. But I was an investment and I wasn’t the best Sam Bennett that they were hoping for. Then you have a young guy who is smashing it early season, is hungry and motivated with a top lead-out. I understand it. Of course, I still want to beat them.

GCN: What does success look like for you in 2024?

SB: Ten wins and a Tour de France stage. My minimum target each year is ten wins and I’ve been short a few years now but that’s the aim. It would be lovely to come out early and win at a French race but I think I need a bit more time to get ready for the season. I need the big base before I can start racing because if I’m on the back foot it’s so hard to catch up.

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