After turning professional in 2012, George Bennett has risen through the cycling ranks, with the 2018 season proving to be one of his best to date.
In May, the 28-year-old LottoNL-Jumbo rider took his best-ever Grand Tour result with eighth place at the Giro d’Italia. He finished outside the top 10 in just two of the seven stages races he started throughout the year. In 2017 he won the Tour of California. However, a few years ago he toyed with the thought of quitting the sport.
Bennett has been battling a chronic side-stitch issue – something that has affected him throughout his entire career. It hits him worst when he's going really deep, both in racing and in training. For years, he's been trying and failing to find a solution for the pinch point between his diaphragm and lung, and there was a time when he thought he might never be free of the problem.
That's when the idea of throwing in the towel started swirling in his mind, but he pushed on. Years later, he is still affected by the issue, but he believes – and hopes – that there's a fix somewhere around the corner.
"Sometimes, you think, 'What’s the point?' You can get a bit despondent," Bennett told Cyclingnews at the Rouleur Classic earlier this month.
"Then, if you feel like you're on the verge of fixing it, you think: 'It's the last race – just suck it up and deal with it.' If you can convince yourself that you're close to fixing it, it does still slow you down a lot, but it doesn't make you sit up and stop trying.
"It can be depressing. A couple of times I've thought about throwing away cycling – a few years ago. That was because we thought that we'd run out of options, but now I think we have a couple of options to try. I think it is something that is fixable. People can fix insane things. I saw yesterday that people were doing spine transplants. I think they can fix a side stitch."
Bennett thought that he'd finally got rid of his problem at the start of this season after going under the knife last December. He made it through to mid-March without any issues, but then a familiar feeling returned at the Volta a Catalunya. It was a hugely disappointing moment for Bennett, who has been back and forth with doctors trying to find the root cause of the problem.
"They've thought it was many things, from digestive stuff, to nerves, to postural, to muscles, to fascia [tissue]," he explained. "The latest thing that they thought it was is something they call median arcuate ligament syndrome, because they saw that there was a blockage. They thought it was a nerve-related aspect of that syndrome. It could be that the scar tissue has come back, or it could be something completely different. When I go back to New Zealand, we'll have to isolate what nerve it could be and then go from there, if it is nerve related at all."
Miguel Angel Lopez and George Bennett attack at the 2018 Tour of the Alps
Learning from errors
Despite his ongoing issues, Bennett stepped up this season with just the Tour Down Under and the Vuelta a España the only times that he didn't feature in a general classification top 10. Bennett had been looking on course for another strong finish at the Spanish Grand Tour in September, but cracked badly on stage 13 to La Camperona at the end of the second week.
He would continue to suffer over the next two major mountain stages and slid out of GC contention entirely. While he says that the side stitch had an impact, he believes there were other factors at play.
"It was a massive part of it, but I also had it really bad at the Giro and I got through. I think it stops me from being really good, but I can still be pretty consistent with it," he said.
"I think the Vuelta had its own problems. The Vuelta I think was a combination of a few problems that we've been trying to work out. Largely, I think that I was too good, too early. I also think that I trained wrong. On the Giro, I was really losing time on these short uphill finishes. So, I just trained on my explosivity and I became quite punchy, which was great for the Tour of Poland, but then I struggled on the long climbs, especially over three weeks.
"I've kind of noticed that I got it wrong three times now, this year. I wanted to be really good at Catalunya, for example, and my best races were Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, and then I wanted to be good at the Giro, but the Tour of the Alps was my best race. Then, again, the Vuelta was my main objective, and I was pretty good at Poland."
Having shown his ability as a leader by winning the 2017 Tour of California, 2018 was Bennett's first full season in the role. While he was pleased with his consistency, he would gladly give up a few of his top tens for a place on the top step of the podium.
The year has given him plenty to mull over ahead of 2019. He has his own thoughts on what he needs to do to improve next season, but he's also putting his faith in LottoNL-Jumbo's coaches.
"Getting a top 10 is nice. It means that you're competitive and in the race, but I'd trade a lot of them to win a big race. That's the next step, I guess," Bennett said.
"I think that a little bit of me thinks that I need to start the build-up later. It's hard to know. I've got a lot of faith in our trainers. I don't know what it will transpire to be, but I know that they will assess it and say, 'You need to do this and this.' I'm not sure what those steps will be, but I don't think that it'll be that hard to fix, or it shouldn't be.
"If I could shake the side stitch, then that would be good. Even a few times if things went a bit more my way, it could have been a bit different. They're little things, but it's still a big step to winning a race."
Bennett is hoping to get back to the podium's top step, like he was at the 2017 Tour of California
Giro or Tour
It was a busy season, and Bennett, with 80 race days under his belt, has enjoyed a long stint off the bike, spending some of his off-season in Girona with his girlfriend, Caitlin, before they headed to New Zealand. Bennett's 2019 is likely to start in a similar fashion to this season, with the New Zealand national championships followed by the Tour Down Under. The routes for the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia were announced at the end of October, but a decision on where he will be sent has not yet been made.
"For me, naturally, the Tour suits me better. When I look at the high-altitude stuff, I'm always quite good at it. There's not as much time trialling. The Tour route really excites me. I think it's one of the coolest I've seen in a while," Bennett told Cyclingnews.
"I've not looked too much at the Giro route, but I've seen that the first week or so has more sprint stages. I think, with three time trials, it would be hard to be good there. If the team sends me there, I'll try my hardest. I'll do it to the best I can."
Bennett has said that he'd like to see LottoNL-Jumbo take all three of their Grand Tour leaders to next year's Tour de France.
The team took fourth and fifth at the 2018 Tour de France with Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk, respectively, and Bennett would like to get in on the party in 2019. He believes that the three of them can work together to form a supergroup of leaders.
"It will be a bit of a hard challenge looking at who goes where," Bennett told Cyclingnews of the team's impending race-programme decisions. "For me, I'd like to see all of us at the Tour. You saw what they did with two guys this year. With three guys that really get on and ride well together, it could be a real advantage for us.
"I did the Vuelta with Stevie and that went great. We rode the first two weeks as co-leaders, and then I had a shocker in the last eight days and I converted to helping him. It wasn't as though we were at each other's throats for the first two weeks. We get on fine. The same with Roglic. I roomed with him a fair bit this year, and we got on really well. He's a great guy and a super-chilled leader. I'm a pretty relaxed guy as well. It's probably a complementary kind of style on the bike."
Asked if there were ever any problems with egos, Bennett said: "I don't really get that vibe. I don't know – maybe I'm just oblivious."