George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) will be one of a handful of WorldTour riders competing for the Kiwi jersey this weekend at the New Zealand national championships in Napier, but the 27-year-old from Nelson will have more on the line than just the win.
After undergoing surgery in the off-season to correct a 'side stitch' that has plagued him throughout his cycling career, the 2017 Tour of California winner is hoping to find out whether the procedure's fix can hold up under race stress. The surgery attempted to open blockages in a ligament in the abdomen, and the recovery kept Bennett off his bike until after Christmas. Sunday's 171km road race should prove a proper test for his recovery so far.
"I've been back on the bike a week, although I did train quite hard before the surgery," Bennett said in an article for Cycling New Zealand. "The first intensive exercise will be at the nationals, but we just don't know what will happen. If it is successful then it would be life-changing.
"Success for me would be a day when I am able to do something in the race and I have no side-stitch. If that happened it would be a raging success."
Bennett plans to skip Friday's 40km time trial to ensure he's fresh for Sunday's road race, where he'll face, among others, fellow WorldTour riders Jack Bauer (Mitchelton-Scott), Tom Scully (EF Education First-Drapac), Alex Frame (Trek-Segafredo) and Sam Bewley (Mitchelton-Scott). Paddy Bevin (BMC Racing) was forced to withdraw after a crash in training last week.
"While there are the WorldTour guys racing, anyone can win the nationals if they prepare well and get it right," Bennett said. "I am coming in without any ambitions really and will just try to race smart. The nationals are a good thing for us to do. I enjoy it and I want to support it."
Continental riders Joe Cooper, 2015 and 2017, and Jason Christie in 2016 have won the last three editions of the road race. The time trial was won by Bauer in 2017 with Bevin the 2016 champion.
The individual time trial, over 40kms for the men and 25km for the women, takes place Friday from 10 a.m. local time, with elite men at noon. The 171km men's road race starts Sunday at 8:30 a.m., with the women's 114km race starting at 10 a.m.