The small town of Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary numbered fewer than 6,000 citizens the last time anyone counted, which was four years ago. Sam Bennett will probably be able to hear the roar from 600 miles away in Paris if he can deliver in the final sprint on the Champs Elysees on Sunday.
Bennett, who hails from Carrick-on-Suir, is set to become the first Irishman to win the Tour de France’s green jersey since Sean Kelly, also bizarrely from Carrick-on-Suir, won it for the fourth and final time in 1989. The statistical likelihood of two men from the same small town in Ireland winning the points classification at the biggest bike race in the world is about the same as two Slovenians finishing first and second in the general classification: miniscule.
Needless to say they are loving it back home. On every approach to Carrick-on-Suir, be it from the Tipperary, Waterford or Kilkenny sides, there are signs and posters that read “Allez Sam Bennett” and “Bring it home Sam Bennett”. Shops still shuttered up by Covid-19 carry the same messages. His mother Helen is much in demand with local media.
And quite right too. Bennett has been a revelation at this Tour. The 29-year-old, who rides for Belgian giants Deceuninck-QuickStep, was already well established as one of the top sprinters in the world leading into this race. But no one was seriously expected to challenge Peter Sagan, the three-time world champion, in the green jersey contest, which sees riders collect points at intermediate and finish line sprints. Sagan [Bora-Hansgrohe] has won seven of the last eight, only missing out in 2017 when he was controversially disqualified for knocking Mark Cavendish into the barriers.
The Slovakian’s strength is not so much his sprinting ability, now on the wane, but his climbing ability, which allows the 30-year-old to collect intermediate sprint points on hillier stages when the pure sprinters are dropped.
Bennett, though, has proved more than a match for him. He moved into the green jersey after his first ever Tour stage win on the Ile de Re. And he has simply refused to go away, consistently outsprinting Sagan whenever they go head to head, and going into survival mode in the mountains.
He has suffered terribly for his labours. Every day the road went uphill there was a chance the Irishman might miss the day’s time cut.
But when Bennett - who was not even born when Kelly won the last of those green jerseys - not only survived Friday’s 19th stage to Champagnole, but made the breakaway, and then finished eighth in the reduced bunch sprint to Sagan’s ninth, his job was all but done.
“I think when I arrive onto the Champs Elysees [on Sunday], for that first lap, wearing the green, it’s going to be amazing,” Bennett reflected after completing Saturday’s time trial to La Planche des Belles Filles. “I’ll probably have a tear in my eye.”
He cannot afford to get too emotional. There is still, in theory, a small chance he might not win. With 70 points up for grabs, and his lead 69, Sagan could pip him if he wins all the intermediate and finish line points and Bennett finishes nowhere. Carrick-on-Suir can rest easy. There is no way that is happening. Apart from anything, it is over a year since Sagan won a race of any description. And Bennett fancies the stage himself. “I’m ready,” he declared on Saturday night. So is Ireland. The Emerald Isle is about to turn greener than ever.