Sam Bennett is well used to riding a race within a race, and clearly had three in mind on the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice, the priority now being next Saturdays Milan-San Remo.
With two stage wins already, and conceding hes no longer chasing the green jersey outright when most of the remaining sprint points are on climbs, Bennett had declared the last three days as mainly an exercise in strength and conditioning, and once again rode deep with impressive intent over the mountainous 120km Stage 7 towards the ski resort of Valdeblore La Colmiane.
That intent on the Queen Stage began as early as the first climb, when Bennett rode clear as part of a 13-man breakaway, the riders tackling the Côte de Gilette from the gun, with Bennetts Deceuninck-QuickStep team mate Mattia Cataneo also in the group.
At one point their lead stretched to three minutes, Bennett doing much of the riding at the front, and keeping himself there to the top of the penultimate climb at Côte de Saint-Antonin, where he actually won the first three intermediate sprint points at Tournefort, 88km into the day.
Bennett then eased right back into the peloton on the final climb, the stage climaxing with an immaculately timed finishing kick from Primoz Roglic, as he swept past the young Swiss Gino Mader of Bahrain Victorious in the final 50 metres, taking his stage win and extending his overall lead to 52 seconds ahead of Germanys defending champion Maximilian Schachmann.
Bennett finished 23 minutes and 33 seconds down. Roglics win also extends his lead in the green jersey to 57 points to Bennetts 39, in second, although the Irish rider admitted much of his day had been about that strength and conditioning work towards the first of the spring monuments next Saturday.
Yeah, its good training, said Bennett. But also (in the breakaway) I wanted to do a good ride for Cataneo and get him as far as possible into the climb, ahead of the peloton, once we were there. So I just tried to do my best for him, its not often I can give back to the guys, and so when I had the opportunity, I went deep.
Asked about conceding the green jersey, Bennett again confirmed it wasnt the priority: Well no, I cant keep it here. The sprints are on top of climbs, so I just cant. If the intermediates were on the flat maybe I could target it a bit more, but theres just too many of them uphill. Its just when I was there (today), I might as well take them, because you never know what happens, but I wasnt thinking of green today. So yeah, overall good form, and its a bit more strength and conditioning.
Like he did on Fridays 203km stage towards the hilltop finish at Biot, Bennett buried himself in preparation for next Saturdays Milan-San Remo, making no secret of his desire to add that to his list of wins. At 298 km, the longest professional one-day race in modern cycling, it includes the famous Poggio climb with some 10km to go, before a downhill and then flat finish.
Bennett will still wear green on the final Stage 8, moved to Le Plan Du Var, for a 92.7 km ride to Levens, as Roglic wears yellow, though the Slovenian rider from team Jumbo-Visma has left no doubt about his superiority in this years race. Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) sits third overall at 1:11.