Though commentating on the Giro d’Italia for Eurosport, the great Seán Kelly would have been keeping an eye on events back home – not least 18-year-old Sam Bennett’s stunning feat in taking Saturday’s penultimate stage of the FBD Insurance Rás in golf star Shane Lowry’s home town.
There were emotional scenes afterwards as the kid from Carrick dedicated the best win of his young career to his mum Helen, who has been ill with cancer.
At the end of the 150km seventh leg from Castlebar to Clara, the Tipperary Dan Morrissey prodigy out-sprinted the 100-plus peloton, including specialists such as quadruple Tour de France stage-winner Jann Kirsipuu, to announce his arrival as a world-class road racer.
Bennett’s remarkable burst from the bunch was the highlight of the eight-day race in which another local name figured prominently, that of Piltown man Brian Kenneally (Meath Engraveit.ie/BDBC) whose efforts earned him the overall best County Rider prize, and 15th place overall.
As third-placed under-23 rider and only 10 seconds behind the South Kilkenny man in the final County Rider stakes, Bennett’s heroics, and a strong supporting cast, led the Tipp combination – including Kilmac’s Hugh Mulhearne, Mark Power (Dungarvan), John Dempsey and Joe Fenlon to second in the County Team standings behind Kenneally & co.
Meanwhile, the five-strong Comeragh Cycling Club crew (namely, Don Feighery, Keith Gater, Robin Kelly, Mark Nugent and Michael Hennessy) performed admirably throughout, all finishing the weather-ravaged round-Ireland route in Skerries to secure a fantastic fifth place in the County Team pecking order, much to the delight of manager Conor McGrath and his back-up perseonnel, who pulled out all the stops to bring the boys through a grueling and incident-filled eight days in the saddle.
The winner of the 2009 edition from a long way out was England’s Simon Richardson, who took the yellow jersey after the previous Monday’s rain-lashed stage from New Ross to Cobh. Ireland had two riders in the top 10: David McCann (Ireland National Team) ended up eighth overall at 6 mins 9 secs, and David O’Loughlin (Ireland An Post M. Donnelly Grant Thornton Sean Kelly) was a further 44 seconds back in tenth.
But there was only one name on everyone’s lips after the weekend finale: Sam Bennett – whose dad is the former Waterford United favourite Michael, the striker who scored goals galore at Kilbarry and the RSC in the eighties and early-nineties.
A regular on the local road-racing circuit, his son’s boundless potential has been on notice since he was a brown-haired 14-year-old. In 2007 he made a mark on the Suir Valley 3 Day, galloping to a stage win after showing a clean pair of heels to no less a man than Ciarán Power (whose stellar achievement in winning three Rás titles will be appreciated all the more now by the Comeragh CC riders he’s now coaching).
Speaking about his fifth and finest top-ten finish of the week, a terrific return in what was his first Rás, Bennett admitted that though he’d been brimming with confidence earlier in the week, “today I felt like packing the race. I just could not keep there. People were coming around me in the line-outs and everything, I just didn’t have it. Then in the last 25 kilometres I came back around, saw the opportunity there and had a go for it.
“It wasn’t fatigue, but just things got to me… it has been constant rain every day this week. Then the sun came out then and brightened things up for me,” he smiled.
The future is brighter still, starting with a crack at the upcoming national senior championships. Only last autumn, having captured the junior national championship and Junior Tour of Ireland titles, Sam sprinted to victory in the European Junior Points Race in Poland. Remarkably it was only his third indoor velodrome race of 2008, having been preoccupied with his Leaving Cert and the great outdoors.
It marked him out as one of Ireland’s best bets for a medal at the London Olympics – but he was effectively forced to forego his fledgling track career after being somewhat bizarrely overlooked by the sport’s governing body, Cycling Ireland, in applying for international carding funding.
Currently studying for a BA (Hons) in Exercise & Health Studies at Waterford IT – as is Philip Lavery, another member of the Irish U23 cycling team – in July Sam will head off for a trial with the French professional team VC La Pomme, who once had a young Stephen Roche, among other Irish prospects, on their books, with a view to getting a contract for next year.
After his Rás exploits that’s surely a ‘fait á compli’. But as he showed so openly on Saturday, it won’t be easy to leave home.