George Bennett's fifth season in the WorldTour will go down as one to remember for the 26-year-old LottoNL-Jumbo rider. Debuts at the Tour de France and Olympic Games was followed by Bennett becoming the first New Zealander to finish in the top-ten at the Vuelta a Espana.
A two-year contract extension was also signed mid-year, a reward for Bennett's season that "started off reasonable and just got better and better".
"It's pretty hard to go past tenth at the Vuelta on a results base. That was pretty special. Actually, in single moments, I think riding onto the Champs-Élysées, seeing the Arc de Triomphe, seeing the planes flying overhead and realising that you are actually at the event and the whole reason you race bikes," Bennett told Cyclingnews of his season highlights. "It's definitely hard to pinpoint one and part of that is that I didn't really have any time to appreciate and think and reflect because I went from Tour of California, which was potentially a highlight with my one podium of the year on the mountain stage, then straight back for the Dauphine and straight into the Tour.
"Then I did San Sebastian, and the next day I flew to the Olympics then I flew back for the start of the Vuelta and it was just the most hectic thing you could imagine," he said. "By the time I got the Vuelta, after about five days I thought I was done. I was just stuffed. I had been working for Stevie [Kruijswijk] and still felt pretty good on the bike. After he crashed out, there was pretty low morale all round and that took some serious digging to save that one and it turned into the race of my career. It is very difficult to pinpoint a moment but it was definitely a pretty special year for me."
With the team holding Bennett back for the early-season to ensure he was good to go for his bigger objectives later in the year, the Tour of California is where his season came alive. Third place on the queen stage elevated him onto the podium, only to drop to ninth after a "bad" time trial. With nothing to lose, Bennett went down fighting on the final stage and carried that sense of freedom and enjoyment into his other races for the season.
"I have never enjoyed racing as much as I have this year," he said. "I think California was the start of it but everywhere I went after that, I was just loving it. People always ask back in New Zealand if I still enjoy it, but I think I enjoy it ten times more than when I was kicking rocks at the back of the peloton in 2012."
A Tour de France to remember
Robert Gesink's Tour de Suisse crash ruled the Dutchman out of the Tour de France but as one door closed, another opened with Bennett receiving the call up in his place. LottoNL-Jumbo went into the Tour with Dylan Groenewegen as its sprinter and Wilco Kelderman as its GC aspirant who would have Bennett for when the roads went uphill. A crash for Kelderman on stage 7 all but extinguished his overall hopes but let Bennett off the chain with the team letting him focus on animating the breakaways.
"Trying to get into the breakaway and try and stage hunt, it didn’t really work out but I think I was a little bit caught up in the moment," he said of his Tour debut and aims. "You are there in front of millions of people and it is some kind of dream. Especially that first stage, stage 9 where I was seventh. You start attacking them 30km from the line and think you are going to maybe get a result or something. It is good for growing and good for learning but I wouldn’t do that again. I really did enjoy it. I definitely felt the pressure, though, not personally, but you could sense a different atmosphere at the Tour. You could feel that people were a lot more stressed and things like that. I didn’t take any of that stress on because I was there as last minute call up and everything I did was a bonus really."
The highpoint of finishing seventh on stage 9 at Andorra Arcalis quickly became a blur as Bennett was involved in a high speed crash on Stage 11 that left him heavily concussed and had it been any other race, he would have headed home.
"I had a pretty nasty crash on stage 11 and chipped some teeth, broke my helmet in half and just had a very nasty headache for a few days and had to sit in a dark room and try not to look at my laptop," he recalled of the crash. "I was just an absolute zombie on the bike. The team was keeping a pretty close eye on me and I think at most other races, you’d just go home. They made sure nothing dangerous was happening and I got pretty lucky as it can go either way with those things. I was in the breakaway a few days later, stage 15 I think, and I just couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t do anything and I was one of the first guys dropped. I had an absolutely terrible day but the last couple of days in the mountains, I was in the breakaway a couple of times and was almost back to where I was. I never quite recovered fully but by the time Rio came around and even San Sebastian I was fine."
At the time with the shock of the accident, Bennett explained that he didn't realise how bad the crash was until he walked into the team hotel that night.
"I was definitely scared for a few days. I remember I crashed and I commented afterward ‘it is amazing how fast the medic was there’. Because I crashed and looked up and there was a lady there trying to hep me out of a ditch and then I walked into the hotel and they were replaying the crash on TV," he recalled. "I realised that maybe it was a pretty bad crash, because I crashed and lay still in the ditch for about 40 seconds and eventually someone came and helped me out so I thought yeah I must have lost a few moments there for sure. The next day was to Ventoux or shortly afterward and I was pretty scared that day because it was another crosswind day and I could hardly ride my bike. My legs, everything... I was pretty worried that day then after that, as soon as I started making steps in the right direction I was sweet."
The concussion cleared for Bennett to carry his post-Tour form into San Sebastian, finishing 15th, before jetting off to Rio. Bennett was a "one man nation" in the road race, struggling to get onboard enough water and food that saw him suffer "massive heat stroke" as he finished in 33rd position.
"I went from feeling great at the bottom of the hill on the last lap to wondering if I would even get to the finish because it was maybe the worse state I have been in physically by the time I got to the finish line in Rio," Bennett said of the race. "It was pretty bad and it was also strange for me seeing this Olympic village and seeing this privileged and oblivious group of people competing and you look across the fence and see the favelas and poverty. The people of Rio didn’t need that and it wasn’t the place for an Olympic Games. It didn’t really benefit the community at all. I found that detracted from the experience a little bit, just thinking about the whole economic situation of Rio."
George Bennett is helped from the ditch he crashed into on stage 11 of the 2016 Tour de France (TDW Sport)
Breakout Vuelta a Espana
Having seen his chances of a Giro d'Italia victory disappear on the Coll'dell neglio, Steven Kruijswijk was looking for redemption at the Vuelta with Bennett one of his key men for the campaign. The Dutchman though was first felled by illness, then a pole in the finale of stage 5, breaking his collarbone and abandoning as a consequence. Having shepherded Kruijswijk through the opening stages, Bennett found himself well placed to ride GC but it wouldn't be until after the stage finish on the Aubisque when he finished fourth that the idea started to become reality.
"Even then I wasn’t really sure because we didn’t really know which way to go," he said of the result that lifted him into 12th overall. "I want sure either because I didn’t want to ride GC and finish 15th and not have a shot at a stage, which is quite a dangerous place to be because in the end you could up leaving with nothing. It took a while for me to commit to really doing GC and it wasn’t until I started feeling better and better in the mountains and realising around the Aubisue and the day after when we had that crazy stage to Formigal. It was just the most mental day on the bike, and after that I thought ‘ok, now I am really in the hunt’ and put all my eggs in the GC basket."
With an ultimatum from the team that if he was going to throw away riding for GC, he really had to throw it away, Bennett opted for the overall. Bennett moved into tenth on the penultimate day to justify his decision and forgo stage hunting, even though 13-riders broke through for debut grand tour stage wins.
"Seeing guys like Drucker and everyone getting up for stages, I was thinking it was really a race to be winning at and I still haven’t won a race as a pro so that is more frustrating than you could imagine," he said. "Obviously, I have no regrets as I finished tenth but if I finished 11th, maybe I would be sitting here with some regrets."
George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) in a breakaway at the Vuelta (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)
Despite the success of the 2016 season, a sticking point for Bennett was the fact that he remains winless as a professional with fourth place his best personal result to date on two occasions at the Vuelta. In order to break his duck, Bennett is thinking of slightly tinkering his racing programme with a big emphasis on the start of the year before a possible return to California and the Tour.
"I don’t know where or when," he said of his quest for a win. "I might structure it a little bit different next year in terms of breaking the season down, maybe into the New Zealand-Australian summer and give that a nudge before really shutting it down and then go over to Europe. I might have February off or something but we are not 100% sure yet. I would love to build my year around the Tour de France again. As much as you don’t enjoy it sometimes when you are in it, it is such an amazing race and I look back on it with very fond memories when I am riding my bike so that is will be a big goal."
Noting that his success in 2016 came about in part due to the ill fortune and crashes of Gesink, Kelderman and Kruijswijk, Bennett explained he could be in more of a team role next season but is confident he would still be able to chase his own results.
"I could be back working a lot more next year even though I had a good year this year. I could be doing more domestique stuff then I did this year next year. Which is cool, I really enjoy it and enjoy working for guys like Robert but I would want to get my chances at somewhere like California," he said.
Throughout his career, Bennett has suffered from a side stitch that has sent him around the world looking for solutions. When Cyclingnews spoke to Bennett, he was in Christchurch to "get on top of it" and "unlock hopefully a lot more potential." Having put in his best season to date despite the limiting factor, Bennett is hoping he can solve the issue to build on 2016 and come out firing in 2017 whether it working for his teammates or chasing a first professional victory.