After seven successful years at Jumbo-Visma, George Bennett heads to UAE Team Emirates on a two-year deal but, as he tells Cyclingnews, the move isn’t about money, and he has more in play than just being part of Tadej Pogačar’s lead-out train in the Tour de France mountains.
According to the 31-year-old, the transfer provides him with a new set of opportunities and the chance to improve as a rider.
There were several factors in Bennett’s decision to leave Jumbo-Visma after spending the bulk of his career on the Dutch squad but talks of a transfer began in the spring when he was approaching the end of his current contract and already had the idea in his head that it might be time to sample a new environment.
He had no major concerns at Jumbo-Visma - he still enjoyed racing there and his place as a super mountain domestique looked solid - but a bruising encounter at the Giro d’Italia, coupled with UAE’s vision, led to advanced talks. Despite interest from five WorldTour teams, the former Tour of California winner opted for the Gulf.
"It sounds cliché but the feelings are very mixed and I’m feeling different emotions at once," Bennett told Cyclingnews this week.
"I’m sad to leave Jumbo after seven years. They’ve been a great team and I leave in a good way and without a single bad word to say about them. It’s a great organization and I made some great friends. I was there for seven years and it’s an organization of 150, so I guess if you’ve not made any close connections in seven years then you’re probably quite an arsehole, so obviously I’m going to miss quite a lot of people. But I’m also really excited about the move. Everything with UAE has been really positive and welcoming."
UAE Team Emirates have been busy this summer bolstering their line-up, with a string of major signings. They have now become cycling’s big spenders and, having won the Tour de France for the last two years, have usurped Ineos Grenadiers as the biggest superpower in the sport – in recent recruitment at least.
Along with Bennett, the team have snapped up João Almeida, Marc Soler, Finn Fisher-Black, and extended Pogačar’s contract until 2027 to make him the best-paid rider in the world. However, according to Bennett, signing for the team wasn’t about the financials, and instead down to what UAE thought in terms of his capabilities in the future.
He was also well aware of the team’s strategy in the transfer market during his own negotiations with them.
"They told me who they were targeting. They’ve already got a super strong team, and when you’ve got a rider like Pogačar people start racing just to make sure that you lose. I saw that with Primož Roglič so you end up needing a team that’s basically crazy strong and full of leaders who are basically acting like teammates," he said.
At a sit-down meeting with Jumbo-Visma's Merijn Zeeman later in the year, Bennett and his team director had an open discussion about the rider’s future and, while Jumbo were keen on keeping one of their most loyal and reliable rider assets, Zeeman was conflicted about telling Bennett to stay when a better future lay at another squad.
Zeeman, a mentor as well as a manager, has been instrumental in helping Tom Dumoulin back into the sport after time out, and his close relationships to his riders have become a hallmark of his management style, with Bennett also appreciating the personal guidance Zeeman has offered.
"It wasn’t financial, not at all," Bennett insisted. "Jumbo had a different vision for me than UAE. That’s what it came down to. I’ve not suddenly got a huge pay rise, it’s more about the vision that they have for me. UAE wanted me as a guy to integrate with Pogačar at the Tour and also get my own results.
"I sat down with Merijn and had a long chat with him and he backed my decision to leave. He said that he understood why I was leaving. He’s known me for so long and has a personal interest as a friend and not just a manager. He said ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this but I support your decision’, and that there’s always a spot for me.
"I’ve been here seven years, more or less in the same spot, and I think change is good. It wasn’t an easy decision. It wasn't just that I rang up and said I’m leaving. It was a process and they were very much involved. We talked it all through."
The Giro d’Italia
The importance of the Giro d’Italia in Bennett’s decision to change teams cannot be understated. Although he says that it wasn’t 'the' factor, he does admit that it certainly played a significant part.
The New Zealander went into the race with high ambitions of a GC result and was hoping for a place in the top five. However, he suffered terribly in the winter-like conditions and, although he still managed to scramble to a credible 11th, fight for stage wins, and support breakout rider Tobias Foss, he was never in the picture when it came to climbing with the best riders in the race.
At 31, this was a huge opportunity for Bennett to take his chance in a three-week race, especially after he gave up those hopes in 2020 in order to support Roglič at the Tour de France, but the final result was a bitter blow and the temptation of a new start at UAE, coupled with their vision for his future, definitely came at the right time.
"It was already in my head about possibly making a change, even before UAE. They obviously were keen on me and when I put it down on paper in terms of the science they have, the aerodynamics, the people that they’ve employed, and the riders on the team, it became more and more clear this was the best option for me," he says.
"The Giro was a factor. Not 'the' factor but certainly one of them. The Giro was hugely disappointing for me. There was a risk and we got unlucky with the weather but that’s when I thought that I needed to mix things up and that I needed to do some different shit instead of doing the same thing and just hoping for a result. After the Giro something needed to give it and I was already talking to UAE since before the Giro but we didn’t commit until a few weeks after.
"There were a few other teams but you never really know how far it goes. I was talking to maybe five teams but in terms of deciding between contracts it didn’t really go that far because once I really began talking to UAE, that’s when things became a bit more locked on. I was talking to most of the standard westernized teams, and I wasn’t looking at France or Spain."
Looking to the future and leaving on a high
With his future secure, Bennett still has plenty to aim for this year but he also knows that he’ll play an important part at UAE Team Emirates next season.
The 2022 blueprints and rosters are still some way off being finalized but the Kiwi is keen to miss the Giro and hopes to help Pogačar win a third straight Tour de France. There’s talk of a possible ride in the Vuelta, too, but that’s a full year away and Bennett is also likely to have a cluster of one-week races to also aim for.
"I’d like to ride the Tour in support of Pogačar and if I’ve got anything left then I’d like to have a crack at the Vuelta but it’s way too early. It might all be totally different because we don’t know what’s happening with Tour Down Under and we don’t know if I can go home to New Zealand because that two-week quarantine was horrible. I’m hoping for some change on that front."
It’s in those one-week events where Bennett has the best chance of riding for himself – at least at this point – but he also knows that if he has the form then his future team will back him.
"They’re always looking for guys who can get results. Maybe there’s the option of co-leading at some races and leading at others but there are still plenty of opportunities. They were really clear on that and it’s a case of being at the level to take them. You saw it at Basque Country with [Brandon] McNulty being the leader. There will be opportunities but it’s up to me to warrant them."
All of the 2022 talk and speculation on Tour chances will be put to one side for the next few months as Bennett aims to close out his time at Jumbo-Visma in the right way.
He has a stacked progamme for the rest of the year, with the Tour of Norway and Tour of Britain on the cards before he heads to Italy for a batch of one-day races. He wants to make up for the hard knocks he took earlier in the year but also leave Jumbo-Visma with the grace and humility that he encapsulated during his seven years on the team.
"It’s been a bit of a disaster really and the year in general has been a really frustrating one. I’ve reached better levels in training than I ever have, by significant amounts really, but then there’s always something that happens in the race," he said.
"I’m looking forward to the rest of the year and I hope that I can race myself fit. Getting sick has been the story of my season. In Catalunya I had to pull out with a lung infection, Paris-Nice I crashed, at the Giro I basically froze to death. I feel like it’s always an excuse, which I don’t ever want to make but it’s been a frustrating time. It hasn’t been good but I’m going to take the pressure off and see what I can do."
Free of some of the pressure and with a decent race programme to see him to October, Bennett has the chance to make up for lost ground this season and bring the curtain down on his time at Jumbo-Visma in the best way possible. A new chapter is on the horizon but there are still a few pages left in this one.
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