Having ridden in the services of others for the last two years George Bennett has been handed the opportunity to lead a team in a Grand Tour and the 31-year-old is ready to seize his moment as he heads to the Giro d’Italia (May 8-30) to spearhead Jumbo-Visma's GC challenge.
The New Zealander is well aware of the monumental task at hand with a star-studded lineup heading to the first Grand Tour of the season and a route that is littered with pitfalls and obstacles, but the versatile all-rounder is aiming at a top-five finish in a race where he claimed eighth back in 2018.
“I want to see how far up I can finish on GC and that’s all I’m thinking about at the moment,” Bennett told Cyclingnews from his training base in Tenerife on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s hard to put a number on it because I looked at the start list and every week there was one more guy added to the list of potential GC riders. It’s ended up with a crazy start list and obviously, you’ve got a few standout candidates like Simon Yates, Egan Bernal, and maybe Mikel Landa but then you’ve got this group of ten to fifteen guys or more who could finish fourth – from Hugh Carthy, Alexandr Vlasov, Dan Martin (Israel Start–Up Nation), the DSM boys, Pavel Sivakov and I’d probably chuck my name in there too. There are more but I think it’s largely because of the Olympics and also because everyone at the Giro wants to have a shot for themselves, so the race has become this very GC heavy start list.”
Bennett’s stage racing pedigree is somewhat hard to evaluate through results alone. He has cracked the top ten in both the Giro and the Vuelta a España, and in the 2017 Tour he was just outside the top ten before crashing out. However, the majority of his stage racing career has revolved around riding for others and some of his most important and impressive performances have come from his willingness to sacrifice for teammates. Therefore, results alone do not do his talents justice but the former Tour of California winner has all the components to shine in a Giro that leans itself towards the climbers and only has two time trials to bookend the race.
“You want to be at the front end of that list of names so something realistic is the top five, that’s a great result but you can’t put too much on it because it’s such an unknown," said Bennett. "I’ve only done a few race days this year. In Paris-Nice I was riding in total service for Primoz Roglic and then I was out of Catalunya after a couple of days so I’ve got no idea how I’m stacking up against these guys.
"At some point you just can’t think about it, or how they’re going. You can just look at how you’re going in training and your previous experiences. I think the focus for me is to just arrive at the Giro in the best possible shape and then go from there.”
Bennett hasn’t raced since pulling out of Catalunya with illness back in March and he has opted for a training heavy schedule that has seen him flip his time between a home in Andorra and Tenerife, where he is currently putting the finishing touches to his form with a portion of the Jumbo-Visma team.
The lack of racing miles might ordinarily bother some riders, and perhaps five or ten years ago Bennett would be at the Tour of Romandie right now to fine-tune his pre-Giro condition, but the Kiwi is confident that the solitude and controlled variables on offer at a training camp provide the best conditions at this time in the year.
“This was always the plan," said Bennett. "The shit part was pulling out of Catalunya after just a couple of days with an illness. In the end, maybe if you were going to a one-day race you’d miss the racing or would need the racing in your legs but I think that [with] the three weeks without racing is only a good thing.
"I think that there’s the COVID risk, and that was one of the factors as to why we didn’t do Tour of the Alps, and then pre-Giro you can do Romandie or Tour of the Alps and it can be snowing and raining every day. It’s easy to get sick or crash. It's uncontrolled. I look at some of the guys who crashed ... and I look at the weather forecast for Romandie and it’s not great. So we took the approach of just trying to train super hard and tried to control every aspect. Sometimes you can go to a race like UAE, faff around for four days, you average 100 watts and you end up losing form.”
Not losing sleep
The sense that the Giro represents a major opportunity for Bennett to stake a claim for himself in future Grand Tours isn’t lost on the rider. In a team as powerful and decorated as Jumbo-Visma chances to lead in three-week races don’t come around every year. Roglic is the number one rider on the team but the Dutch squad also has a crop of younger talent coming through and they strengthened in the winter with signings like Sam Oomen, who was recruited from Sunweb. Roglic is concentrating on the Tour de France this year and Steven Kruijswijk is likely to lead at the Vuelta a España in August.
Bennett, who is also targeting the Olympic Games in Tokyo, knows that his Grand Tour prospects will not live or die by his upcoming Giro campaign but there is a sense that this window provides him with a massive chance to step up in what is also a contract year.
“Of course this is big. On this team, to lead a Grand Tour is such a special opportunity and you want to seize it. But I'm sure that if I crash out the team won’t turn around and say 'that’s it you’re not getting another chance' but the team has all the data on physical capabilities and they also know that riding a Grand Tour is about more than just pushing numbers.
“This is big but at the same time, I’m not lying awake at night thinking that this is my one opportunity because then you can start to overthink things. I know it’s cliché but I just want to get there in the best shape possible and then just go with it. Sometimes things can just mature into these wonderful streaks of form and you can just surpass all expectations and sometimes it can go the other way. I just want to time it so that one of those magic runs of form that I can go on line up with a Grand Tour. That’s what I’m hoping for. I want to ride hard to the finish every day.”
Groenewegen’s appearance is helpful
The surprise inclusion of Dylan Groenewegen in the team means that Bennett will be down one climber on the eight-rider roster but he believes that the appearance of the sprinter, who is returning from a ban after last years’ Tour de Pologne, will ensure that not all the pressure will fall on his shoulders and that the team can balance out the needs of two independent leaders during the race. There is a trade-off, Bennett admits, as he could find himself isolated at certain points in the mountains but the mood in the Jumbo camp is one of optimism at this point.
“It’s a great team and it’s a great group of guys and that’s is important to me. We’ve had a few last-minute changes but we’ve gained a huge opportunity by bringing in Dylan. I feel comfortable in that role because we have shared ambitions, and I’m always happy to go with co-captains. I think that helps me because I don’t need seven guys around me on the flat stages. What it does mean is that Tobias Foss and Koen Bouwman have a huge workload on their plate and they’re going to have to absorb a lot but they’re bloody good riders and I been training with them the last couple of weeks and they’re strong.”
“We don’t have to make the race either. Ineos is a team for the mountains and as long as there are teams like that able to control then it’s ok. The danger point is when no one has control and it can turn into a lottery. Then it just depends on whether you’ve got a winning ticket or a losing one.”
On May 30, when the Giro reaches Milan for the final time trial, Bennett will find out just what type of ticket he ended up with.
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