Sam Bennett: ‘I need to go back to the Tour de France, I need to be at my highest level’

Irish rider completes long-awaited move to French Decathlon Ag2r la Mondiale team

Sam Bennett isn’t just going through the motions. It is three years since he won the green jersey in the Tour de France, three years since he last rode that race, but the Carrick man remains convinced he’ll win big again.

“I am hungry,” he assured on Monday, shortly after the announcement of a move to the Decathlon Ag2r La Mondiale team. “I want to prove himself. I want to get back to the Tour de France, and to win there again.

“The priority is to show myself, to show that I am capable. I want to be the top guy again.”

Bennett was one of the biggest names at Monday’s team presentation in Lille. He moves to the French WorldTour outfit after two years with the Bora-hansgrohe team, a period big in expectations but which didn’t quite work out.

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Bennett crested the summit in 2020, taking two stages plus the green jersey in the Tour. He dominated sprints that year and the following spring, but a bad knee injury in June 2021 saw him miss the Tour plus several months of racing.

Getting back up to speed with Bora proved more complicated than expected, even if he took two stage wins in the 2022 Vuelta a España before Covid-19 put him out of that race. Further disappointment then followed this year when Bora overlooked him for the Tour de France.

2024 is all about putting things right. He’s one of the biggest names with Decathlon Ag2r la Mondiale, a French squad chasing Tour success and will once again be prioritised as a key rider.

“I had to put everything out on the table, and I have to go where the opportunity is,” he explains. “And this is where I was getting the best opportunity. You know, I’m not getting any younger and I need to get back to the Tour de France, I need to be at my highest level. Bora are going more and more towards GC [Tour general classification]. For me going to this team will be a huge benefit to me.”

For some the move is a strange one; Ag2r has little tradition of winning bunch sprints, Bennett’s forte. However that could play in his favour; there will be less responsibility on the team to control the bunch, to drive the pace inside the final kilometres, with the more specialised squads needing to do so. And flying a little under the radar is something he feels could suit him better.

“I think we’ll improvise,” he said. “We do have Ollie Naesen and a few other strong guys. I think I want to go back to where I am more positioned in the last kilometre. To fight a bit more for the wheel and come from the back. I did that in China recently, having the guys bring me to 1K to go. I had zero condition after being sick for a few weeks, but I jumped right into it and got a podium. I knew how to float in the bunch, how to get into position again.

“I know it is there, I am just looking forward to a fresh start.”

For those who point to his age, who contrast the success of the younger sprinters to Bennett’s 33 years, he believes there are reasons why he can still dream big.

“My body isn’t all bet up, so I should still have a good number of years left in me. I was quite late coming to the professional ranks and in reaching my level. And then the last years I haven’t done the Grand Tours, so they weren’t taking miles off the clock.”

He looks to the example of Mark Cavendish, who next year will chase the all-time Tour de France record of 35 stage wins. He’ll be 39 then, six years older than Bennett.

“Mark is a great inspiration, when you see how he came back and won again at the Tour. I think he will get that stage. He was unlucky with his chain problem this year, I think he would have definitely had won that stage otherwise.

“I think there’s plenty of fight in the old dog yet.”

The same can be said of Bennett, older than many sprinters, but every bit as hungry for success.

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