When Sam Bennett returned to Bora-Hansgrohe prior to the start of this season, one big draw for him was the coach he would be working with. Speaking to VeloNews in January, the Irishman said that reuniting with Dan Lorang was crucially important for his career.
“I was really successful before with the team,” Bennett explained then. “And I really discovered myself when Dan Lorang was here. I really worked well with him. The year I left , I think I participated in 20-something sprints, and in only three of them I was outside the top three. I won 13 races. It was some of the best legs I have had. I know Dan can really have me in top shape.”
Bennett went as far as to say that reuniting with Lorang could see him surpassing his 2020 Tour de France form. He took two stage wins plus the green jersey in that race, his most significant victories to date.
“This year I want to show that wasn’t a fluke,” he said. “The thing is, I think I was stronger at the Vuelta a España the year before. Okay, at the start of 2021 my form was pretty similar but, in the 2020 Tour, I don’t think that was me at my best.
“My best legs were when I was working with Dan Lorang. I will be stronger at the next Tour de France than the last time I was there.”
It’s now three months on, and Bennett is yet to take his first victory of the season. The closest he has gone to that was in his first stage race of the year, back in February. He was second on stage one of the UAE Tour and then third four days after that. Since then he is yet to finish in the top-10 of any other event.
So is Bora-Hansgrohe panicking?
Not at all, says Lorang. “The best way to describe it in his words,” he explains to VeloNews. “Sam told me one or two days ago that he feels like now he is ready for this last big training block before being in the best shape possible.”
Steady does it
Hailing from Luxembourg but living in Germany, Lorang knows Bennett very well. He began coaching him in November 2016, knows his strengths and weaknesses, and believes that the most important thing after his return to the team was not to rush things.
“When Sam came back to us he had the background of the injury he suffered at Quick-Step,” he said, referring to the knee problem which cropped up in early June of last year.
“We really had to be careful when building up the load. There were some small setbacks. Not big ones, but small ones. What we always said is that we don’t want to have Sam in his best shape in February, and then to be injured for the rest of the year.
“What we wanted is to have him at a good point, consistently, but also to give the body the time to really adapt to the training. Especially the tendons, the muscles. They need a lot of time to get used to the load.
“This kind of injury is not one where you say, ‘it’s like a bone, it’s broken, and you have a healing time of, say, six weeks and then it’s good again.’ It’s different with the tendons. You don’t really know always how long it will take. For sure, we hoped that it would go faster, to be honest. But we saw quite quickly that it will not be the case.”
A lot has changed in a year. Bennett had a very strong start to 2021, taking no less than seven race victories between late February and early May. He appeared to be well on course for another strong Tour de France, but then hit his knee off his handlebars in the leadup to the Tour of Belgium.
The injury forced him out of action for several months. He returned to ride four races between September and October, but was a non-finisher in each of them.
Bennett underwent intense physical therapy and said that his knee injury had settled by the time he rejoined the team. Lorang said that Bora-Hansgrohe still had to be very cautious.
“When he came to us he lost already quite a good amount of muscle mass, because he couldn’t train hard for a long period. The area that was injured took a long time to get back to normal and so the other structures were no longer used to load. Basically, when you start again, there’s always the risk of quite quickly having some kind of overload. That’s especially the case with sprinters, where you do strength work with high torques, where you have a high tension on the muscles.
“That’s why also other parts of the body say, ‘hello, we also want to be treated carefully! [laughs]’ With Sam, it was a transparent process. We built it up step by step, and there was no setback from then on. That was good.”
Return to racing
Bennett’s initial schedule saw him penciled in to begin the Saudi Tour on February 1st. However he said in January that participation would depend on what progress he was making with his training. He and the team ultimately held off until the UAE Tour, which began on February 20th.
Picking that particular event was deliberate. It is, says Lorang, a race where the general workload is not high. Although there are crosswinds and fast finales to stages, he said that the race overall matched well to what Bennett’s body was able for at that time.
“It wasn’t about the metabolic system—we know how to bring Sam to a really good level as regards that—it was more about the tendons, the muscles. We had to be careful,” he explains. “The race came at the right moment and everything went well, and then we knew, ‘OK, we can go the next step.’”
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Since then he has done 12 days of racing. Of those, his highest-placed finish was 13th in Wednesday’s Scheldeprijs. Lorang admits they had hoped things would build more quickly.
“For sure, we had the hope that it would go faster, to be honest. But we saw quite quickly that it will not be the case. And then we communicated that transparently in the team, to the management, to the sport director, so that everybody was aware of the situation. The teammates too – it’s hard if you have a good leadout train but your sprinter is not at his best. It’s better to be transparent and to explain that to them. And Sam is a good communicator in this, so he had a good team around him that supports him and believes in him.”
Things were different outside the team.
Some journalists and social media users questioned why Bennett hasn’t already reached strong form. To be fair to him, though, he did make clear in February that he wouldn’t be back up to speed for quite some time.
“It will be a few months now until I really get going,” he told VeloNews then. “But we have planned this, we have planned a slower build-up into the season to make sure that the body is safe and sound, and that it gets used to the load again. Sprinting is hard on the tendons and the joints.
“It will take a while, so I probably will get a bit of hardship from media. But I know it is all part of the process. I will get there eventually.”
It’s now April and while things have been inconsistent, there are indications that his form is coming.
Bennett was a distant 106th in Gent-Wevelgem; however Lorang reveals he had stomach problems and diarrhea during the race, something which likely still had an effect in Dwars door Vlaanderen three days later. He was a non-finisher there.
He was much more prominent in Scheldeprijs on Wednesday. Last year he finished a close second to Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) in a 22-man sprint. This time around he was doing things the hard way, being part of a key move which went clear in the opening hour of racing and which stayed out front until the end.
He was one of four Bora-Hansgrohe riders in the break and while he was visibly the one under most pressure, he was nevertheless present up front, unlike many of his usual sprinting rivals. There were many strong riders stranded behind.
Grimacing with effort, Bennett was temporarily gapped on several occasions inside the final 20 kilometers. He rejoined each time, but then had to let go with just over eight kilometers remaining due to a slow rear wheel puncture. He got a replacement bike and eventually finished 13th, one minute and 25 seconds behind the solo winner Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux).
It was a solid rather than a spectacular performance, but Lorang was encouraged.
“I would say it was a really good step from Sam,” he told VeloNews on Thursday. “For sure it would have been nice if he could have stayed there until the end. He had a flat tyre and was also on the limit, as you saw in the TV pictures. But on the other side it was nice to be there in that move, making a great effort. For sure it is the next step.”
Closing in on first win of 2022?
Next up is the Presidential Tour of Turkey, which begins Sunday and runs for eight days.
If things go to plan, Bennett will be in the thick of the sprints there and will notch up one or more stage wins. It has in the past been good for him: he has competed there on three occasions, clocking up nine stage victories between 2017 and 2019.
“We are looking positively at Turkey,” Lorang says. “Hopefully things will work out there and he can get his first win of the season. This would be a boost for the next weeks, especially for the preparation for the Tour de France.”
Lorang admits the team would have liked things to have moved a little faster. “I cannot say we are now really, really happy, because at the end, it would be nice to win already races with him. But on the other hand, if we are realistic, it’s okay where we are [he laughs].
“I think Sam too would like to be already further in the process,” Lorang says. “I think it would be wrong to stand in front of his team and say, ‘yeah, I’m happy where I am.’ That would not be the right sign. But, on the other side, he knows he is in a good way and he believes in the process. And he has good feelings that he will be ready for the Tour of Turkey and, later, the Tour de France.
“He has the full support of the team. We really believe that even if he hasn’t won a race yet, that he will be strong perhaps in Turkey or the Tour. And from then on, going good the whole year and the next one after that.”
So what does Lorang need to do between now and July to get the best out of the sprinter?
“Having one or two wins would be nice for the head,” he says. “Just to get the feeling of winning again, and to build self-confidence. And I would also say having a good training block.”
What’s important is their many years working together: Lorang is confident he knows how to help Bennett build strong form.
“When I started to work with Sam in 2017, what we identified was that we have to work on the aerobic performance level. For sure also on the sprinting, but we have to give him a really good aerobic performance. We worked strongly on that, and then build it up year by year. That’s why we know how his body reacts to different training stimulus. And even now, some years older, there is no difference. The body will still react to that.
“After the racing [in Turkey], we will do some physiological testing, looking at where he is, and then make a good training block to add the last percentages that are missing.
“Basically what I’m asking for is just had he stays healthy, injury-free, and perhaps has one or two victories before the Tour. And then we should be at a good point.”
Better than ever?
So what about the statement Bennett made earlier this year that he believes he is yet to be at his very best in the Tour de France?
It remains to be seen if he has enough time to surpass his 2020 form in this year’s Tour, but even if it takes a little longer to reach his absolute peak, he will aim to be collecting stage wins again.
Lorang agrees with this. “I can just say that when a rider comes back to your team, you see also the old data [from the Quick-Step time]. And I saw that he was able to win the green jersey with a level that for sure was not as high as it was in 2019. That’s why I believe that he can achieve at least that level again, or even better.
“In 2019 he won 13 races. He won even more races than he did with Quick-Step. So it was really a strong year. But we also have to be fair. He needs consistency. That’s why I don’t know if this [surpassing his 2020 form] is now possible in the next Tour. But if he can then continue on at that level, then for sure…
“Let’s say he is peaking at the Tour, but I think he can also go on for the rest of the year and even get better. So that is the plan. And again next year. It’s always a process that goes over years in sport.”