It was 2008 when he first hit the headlines with wins in the Junior Tour of Ireland and Irish Junior Road race Championship – and there was a win in the European Junior Points Race Championship, too. The following year he took a stage in Ireland’s hotly contested national tour, the Ras. In 2010 there was the U23 Irish National Road race Championship, a stage in the Rhone-Alpes Isere Tour and a stagiaire place with F des J.
But it was with AN Post that he turned pro for in 2011 winning the Stad Geel U23 one day race and grabbing a host of placings in Belgium. Last season there were three top ten finishes on Tour of Britain stages, a top ten in the U23 Worlds in Valkenburg and a win in Kruishoutem – home to the Golden Wheel bar which former Cofidis pro Chris Peers used to run and where PEZ has watched many a race finish on the TV.
This year has been the breakthrough for Bennett – two Ras stages and a whole raft of top placings in Belgium and The Netherlands were the scene setters for the Tour of Britain. The Pro Tour must now be calling – we opened by asking about his European Championship win, back in 2008.
PEZ: European Junior Points Champion in 2008 – how did you manage that with no track in Ireland?
Sam Bennett: We had travelled to Gent that summer for a camp to get used to track. But prior to that morning in the qualification I’d never ridden a points race on the track. I got the hang of it pretty quickly; I took a lap from the bell and a third second and first in sprints. I actually finished and had no idea I’d won because I didn’t have the confidence to look up at score board.
PEZ: You must have been young when you won your Ras stage in 2009?
I was 18 at the time, it was a great confidence booster for me back then. I was getting close each stage but not close enough; so I went early that day because it was a fast tail wind finish – I went from 300 metres out and held on.
PEZ: Stagiaire with F des J in 2010 – how did that come about and why no contract?
I was with VC La Pomme Marseille and only back racing on my bike three months after being hospitalised when a car hit me head on out training. I got a few good results despite this and Monsieur Madiot (F des J manager) came to see me in a prologue time trial. My manager at the time, Fredric didn’t tell me so as not to put pressure on me. I rode really well and M. Madiot offered me a stagiaire, he said he would like to sign me for two years and develop me. But after I signed the contract for stagiaire I suffered tendonitis which ended my season.
The tendonitis came from coming back to soon after my accident; but F des J didn’t want me worrying about my knees in my first season on the World Tour.
PEZ: How did you get the AN Post ride?
Kurt Bogaerts, the AN Post team manager had heard about me and some of my results; he and the team came along when I was at a low point, took me to the best physiotherapists and got me back on track with a good programme.
Sam with his new AN Post team in 2011
PEZ: In 2012 you had three top 10’s in the Tour of Britain and then 10th in the U23 Worlds, didn’t that get you any offers?
I had no offers at all, I thought maybe with those results it would get a little attention but nothing came.
PEZ: Two Ras stages, this year – that must be cool for an Irishman?
Yeah, it was great. We always get great support from the home crowd – but it also brings added pressure with sponsors. Our team sponsors, AN Post – which is the Irish Postal Service – actually sponsor the race.
Enjoying the Irish weather at the Ras earlier this year.
PEZ: You have nice form just now – remind us of your palmares these last few weeks.
Kortemark (pro Kermis) first; Izegem (pro kermis) second; Schaal Sels (UCI 1.1) fourth; Kernen Omloop Echt-Susteren in The Netherlands (UCI 1.2) sixth and Dutch Food Classic (UCI 1.1) seventh.
PEZ: What’s your favourite type of race?
I usually like races that end in bunch sprints. But I love all races whether its cobbles, mountainous windy, flat – I like a variety of races.
PEZ: You must be relieved to be clear of injury – which I believe has blighted your career?
Yes definitely! It’s like a weight has been lifted off my chest – it stopped me from being consistent. I can just enjoy riding my bike not worrying about that aspect – and now the results are coming.
PEZ: Do you have an agent – there must be interest from Pro Continental and/or World Tour squads?
Not officially, not yet – I would have hoped I would. I feel that I’m ready now, with a good race programme and structure I would love to see where it takes me.
PEZ: Where’s home in Belgium, what’s the cooking and cleaning plan – and what takes up the ‘down’ time?
Home in Belgium is Buggenhout. There are eight of us in two houses – we all get along grand and have a good laugh. With four of us in one house it’s a bit crowded but sometimes, when I’m lucky, Sean Downey cooks me real food! Down time usually consists of me lying in bed watching movies, talking to my girlfriend Tara and anything really that keeps me off my feet!
PEZ: What’s left to ride in 2014?
Well, I have being targeting the Tour of Britain so at the minute that is my focus. I’m just taking it one race at a time; I will try to race until our last event, which is 15th October.
PEZ: Are the Commonwealth Games a target – might we see you back on the track?
I’m from the Republic of Ireland; so we don’t take part in Commonwealth Games. At the moment the road is my only focus but I enjoy the track so maybe sometime just for fun I’ll ride it but at the moment not.
SB: If you could win just one race . . . .
The world championships; It would be the most amazing feeling.
PEZ: Tell us a Shane Archbold (Sam’s mullet wearing Kiwi teammate) story, please.
I don’t have any stories (we think he’s being diplomatic on that one!) but we did have a quiet barbeque the other night . . .