Sam Bennett ended the season on a strong showing with a fine performance in Paris-Tours on Sunday.
The Carrick-on-Suir rider showed that he has fully recovered from a bout of Covid-19 in August with an aggressive showing in the French race, going on the attack with approximately 63 kilometres remaining. He rode with Kim Heiduk (Ineos Grenadiers) to open a gap on the main field and try to get across to the leading group and, after they were joined by three chasers, continued to perform well in the break.
They were finally hauled back, as were the leaders, and the race came down to a group sprint of approximately 40 riders. Despite the energy he had earlier expended, Bennett was prominent in the sprint and might have won had he not been hemmed in behind other riders. He finished third behind the Frenchman Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and the Belgian Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo).
“I saw an opportunity to get into the next sections without too much fighting,” said Bennett, explaining that the stretches of dirt roads in the race prompted him to go on the attack. “I thought I’d give it a go. I was happy a group went with me and then we could ride more tempo, we didn’t have to do so many accelerations. Then in the end I felt good in the final. I was happy with the power, but I just couldn’t get out [from behind other riders].”
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Although Bennett would have loved to have taken what would have been his fourth win of the season, he will be encouraged by the note upon which his racing year comes to an end. He missed several months of competition last season due to a knee injury and was consequently some way off his best form for much of this season.
While he bounced back to win two stages in the Vuelta a España, his growing momentum was derailed when he tested positive for Covid-19 and had to leave the race. The virus interfered with his ability to train and he floated the possibility that he may have to end his season early, but fortunately bounced back well and clocked up three days of racing this week.
He was fifth last Monday in the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro, rolled home 36th in Thursday’s running of Paris-Bourges and then took that podium slot on Sunday.
Bora-hansgrohe team sports director Jean-Pierre Heynderickx was encouraged by his showing, realising that it puts Bennett into a good position heading towards the 2023 season.
“We didn’t want to rely on a bunch sprint today, so we tried to get up front with Sam Bennett right from the first gravel sector,” he explained. “He put in a really strong race in the chase group, while his team-mates in the peloton paid close attention and were able to follow every attack. Of course, a win would have been possible and nice, but we are more than happy with a podium at the end of the season.”
Meanwhile, Nicolas Roche finished 47th in the men’s event at the UCI gravel world championships on Sunday, four places ahead of his younger brother Alexis Roche. They were 19 minutes 37 seconds and 20 minutes 23 seconds behind the race winner Gianni Vermeersch of Belgium, who was away for much of the day in a breakaway and dropped Daniel Oss (Italy) in the finale. Mathieu Van der Poel (Netherlands) was third.
On Saturday Emma Porter finished 36th in the women’s race at the same championships, having crashed during the event and suffering mechanical issues which saw her unable to change gear for the remainder of the event.
At home Darren Rafferty and Linda Kelly topped the men’s and women’s categories at the national hill climb championships held in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, on Sunday.
Rafferty (Hagens Berman Axeon) covered the 2.25km uphill course in a time of four minutes 12 seconds, comfortably ahead of Gareth O’Neill (Caldwell Cycles) and Conor Kissane (Killarney CC).
Kelly (Spin the Bean Power by Coffee) retained her title of last year with a time of five minutes 24 seconds.
She was over a minute clear of Hazel Smyth (Kinning Cycles) and Lauren Garvey (Armagh Down CC).