Daniele Bennati might have been a film star had he not become a professional cyclist. His handsome features would surely have made him a leading man, but in the decidedly unromantic world of professional cycling, it is the role of best supporting actor that he has increasingly made his own.
The leads in Tinkoff-Saxo’s drama are El Pistolero, a wiry Spaniard who ambushes his victims in the high mountains, and the Hulk, an explosive figure, capable of overwhelming his rivals by sheer force. Bennati is versatile enough to support either. In a sense, it was ever thus. Bennati, despite an impressive palmarés that includes 11 Grand Tour stage wins, began his career in the professional ranks as lead out man to Mario Cipollini. In recent years, “Benna” has taken on a more complex role, that of the road captain, serving talents as diverse as Alberto Contador and Peter Sagan.
“It’s not easy to do everything,” he says. “It’s two completely different jobs. When I work for Alberto, I am in the wind immediately, or after 5km, or 50km, or 100km. I have to put my face in the wind a lot. When I arrive at the final, I’m completely fucked.
“This is completely different to when I work for Peter, because most of the time I need to lead him out. This year, I did that at the Tour de Suisse, the Tour of California, sometimes at the Vuelta, and Abu Dhabi. It’s two completely different jobs. I don’t think everybody could do this. It’s not easy.”
You can say that again. Ian Stannard’s role at Sky as flatland ‘bodyguard’ to Chris Froome does not also require him to steer Elia Viviani to within 200 metres of the finish line, but Bennati is versatile enough to serve both Contador and Sagan. Leading out the world champion comes more naturally to a sprinter of such pedigree, one suspects, but, as Bennati explains, to work for a champion like Contador is a pleasure. His praise for the Spaniard is consistent with that bestowed by a varying cast of his team-mates, past and present. Contador is, firstly, a nice guy, Bennati explains. To bury yourself for a champion is merely to do your job, but to do so for someone so pleasant is a pleasure.
That said, the Italian feels more at home in the blood and thunder of a bunch kick, with the formidable Sagan on his wheel. “Maybe my natural characteristic is high speed,” Bennati shrugs, with no more emphasis than if he had revealed a preference for lie-ins. Off the bike, Bennati is completely unhurried. He strolls to the rendezvous for our conversation, hands in pockets, his stride long and languid. He is softly spoken and has a slow, gentle manner. Bennati off the bike is clearly a very different character to the man on it.
He is the right hand man on the road to sports director Sean Yates, who recognised his qualities as early as the Tour of Oman, and a useful voice of experience to Tinkoff-Saxo’s young guns. When Sagan followed team-mate Sergio Paulinho out of the Vuelta (both were taken down by support vehicles), Bennati’s talents were refocussed on a campaign headed by then 24-year-old Rafal Majka. Bennati’s Vuelta campaign offers a window on his versatility. “It was one of the hardest Grand Tours I did in my career,” he says. He would not have been in Spain, were it not for the crash that took him out of the Tour de France. When he rolled out in Puerto Banús on day one, the plan was for him to ride until the second rest day and then go home.
The loss of Paulinho and Sagan placed an imperative on Bennati’s presence. For the team’s young leader, not to mention his two lieutenants, 23-year-old Jay McCarthy and 25-year-old Pawel Poljanski, Bennati’s experience was a valuable asset. The final week of an already ferocious race was roundly criticised in certain quarters for being too hard. Mark Cavendish, who didn’t even take the start, branded the parcours “stupid”. Bennati offers qualified approval.
“I agree, in part. I think also sometimes the stages are too hard. For the spectacle, it’s important, but, for example, they put in seven climbs on the stage to Andorra: 130km, seven climbs, 5,000m altitude.
“In my opinion, it’s better to put in 220km stages, with maybe three climbs, and to make it hard in the final. For me, that makes it more spectacular than one short stage that is really, really hard. Also, they put on a really hard stage every day. I think even the GC riders couldn’t attack any more on the last two climbs.”
Bennati will perform his dual role again next season, riding for Sagan “from Het Volk to Paris-Roubaix”, before a short break and a return in time for the tours of California and Switzerland to be ready to support Contador in the Spaniard’s final Tour de France.
“The road captain is a really particular job,” Bennati concludes. “Not everybody can do it. You need a lot of experience, and for sure, I have a lot of experience.”
Now 35 and about to begin his fourth year with the team, Bennati is set to play a critical, if largely unseen role once again. No less than the world champion and the most successful Grand Tour rider of the age will depend on his abilities. At Tinkoff-Saxo’s end of season gathering in Croatia, team CEO Stefano Feltrin talked of a policy to encourage riders beyond the team’s two figureheads to attack when the opportunity arises. Bennati will need no second invitation.