Sam Bennett wants to embrace the pressure he is feeling as he targets a first career stage win at the Tour de France.
The Irish sprinter, 29, has had a brief but tough relationship with cycling’s biggest race in his career to date, hampered by injuries and illness in his appearances in both 2015 and 2016.
But in the years since he has collected Grand Tour stage wins in both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, and he is regarded as one of the favourites for the Tour’s sprint days with the help of the powerful Deceuninck-QuickStep squad.
It is a privileged position, but one that comes with considerable expectations.
“It’s mad, because when I went into those other Grand Tours I was a lot more relaxed,” Bennett said.
“For some reason here, it really feels like my whole career has been a build-up to this moment and this opportunity, and I feel quite a bit of pressure in that sense.
“It would mean a lot to get a stage win here. It would settle me as a rider and make me a lot more confident.
“I think you just have to accept there is pressure, that’s part of the moment. I suppose when you have that pressure it means that it really means something to you, so you just have to embrace it.
“I know when the racing starts everything will calm down and the legs will be there. It’s in the days before you have to keep your mind occupied.”
An unusually tough opening week of the Tour will limit opportunities for the sprinters and immediately soften up the legs.
There could be a bunch finish to Saturday’s opening stage, but thereafter sprinters will immediately be into survival mode for a tough second day.
With his training base nearby, the opening days around Nice are near enough home roads for Bennett but that only gives him prior warning of how tough the challenge ahead will be.
“I think we just have to take each day as it comes,” he said. “The first day is possibly a sprint but at the same time it might be a really hard day. You have to stay open minded and survive as long as possible.”
Though Bennett will lead the team on sprint days, star billing in the Deceuninck squad goes to Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, who lit up last year’s Tour with his unexpected two-week spell in yellow.
Not everyone believes the 28-year-old’s claims that he will not seek a repeat this year, targeting only stage wins, but even if the team were to be defending the leader’s jersey again this year Bennett is still sure he would be supported on the sprint days.
“He’s a guy that always plays it down and then comes out on fire,” Bennett said of Alaphilippe. “But whenever it’s someone’s opportunity we always go all-in.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he took yellow. It will be very hard to repeat what he did last year but anything is possible with him.”
Bennett has given up trying to predict much about anything in this strangest of seasons and strangest of years.
The Tour will begin against the backdrop of rising coronavirus cases in France, with many questioning whether it will make it all the way to Paris.
“The way 2020 has been going, nothing surprises me anymore,” Bennett said. “We just have to stay open-minded. I wouldn’t be surprised if it did make it to Paris, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t make it past the weekend.”