In the last 12-months, George Bennett made his debut at both the Tour de France and Olympics Games road race, and claimed a maiden victory at the Tour of California. Bennett also became the first Kiwi to finish top-ten overall at the Vuelta a Espana in September.
An off-season bout of glandular fever slowed the 27-year-old's start to 2017 but top tens at Abu Dhabi Tour and Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and 11th at Vuelta al Pais Vasco suggested he would be a rider to watch in California. He continued his most consistent start to a season by taking the overall victory and now the LottoNL-Jumbo rider is aiming to add to his growing list of recent achievements by winning a stage at the Tour de France, forgoing general classification ambitions.
"We have the whole team going for stage wins," Bennett told Cyclingnews of the team tactics for the Tour de France. "We have Dylan [Groenewegen] with the sprint train obviously targeting the sprint stages and then Primoz [Roglic] really going full gas for the time trials and the breakaway. And then Robert [Gesink] and myself essentially for the last two weeks and there are not heaps of opportunities for the Tour this year, so we are a going to have to be pretty sharp on the days that count."
Although Bennett's debut Tour was ridden in service of Wilco Kelderman, he still managed to infiltrate several breakaways with seventh place at Andorra Arcalis on stage 9 his best result. In 2017, Bennett is targeting the second and third weeks of the race for results but is well aware of the reduced opportunities compared to 12-months prior.
"I would love Chambery [stage 9] but I think so would everybody else," he said when asked if there was a specific stage he has in mind. "Izoard [stage 18] , maybe Foix [stage 13] on the really short intense stage. Any of those Alpine or Pyrenees stages really. There are actually only a few opportunities. I think we have stages 12 and 13, eight and nine, and then a couple in the last few days. In between, maybe I start looking into the medium stages for those opportunities as well."
With no focus on the general classification or king of the mountains classification, Bennett added that the team will need to think outside the box and look to try different tactics if it is to secure wins in the high mountains.
"Given the limited amount of opportunities, I think we are going to see a lot of results coming from the bunch. Look at the Giro this year, they were happy to let a lot of things go and just battle out the GC because there were so many mountains stages and they couldn't control them all," he said of May's Giro where the breakaway enjoyed several stage victories ahead of the GC riders. "Here, they are going to want to take them which means we either have to be lucky or extremely strong to hold them off. Or even taken opportunists moves. Maybe it doesn't come from the early break but from going at the bottom of the last climb. We'll have to be inventive and smart and probably the advantage comes from the three of us hunting stages. Maybe we can get a few guys into a move or something."
Although Bennett is brimming with new found confidence and high ambitions following his California victory, he continues to struggle with side stitches. Attempts to solve the issue over the off-season were unsuccessful but having ridden through the pain, Bennett is hopeful further investigations post-Tour can eliminate it once and for all.
"It is still there, but I think we've narrowed it down the cause a bit. It is still giving me a lot of trouble, and I am hoping after the Tour this year to see a specialist about it," he reflected. "We think it essentially got something to do with nerves being trapped, so I feel like it is still holding me back quite a lot which really sucks in a lot of ways. It is always on your mind and takes a lot of energy and stress waiting for it come on or working out how to fix it and this stuff. If we can fix it, it will help me reach another level."
For the present, the side stitches are unavoidable, but Bennett has proven he can ride through the pain. Rather than dwell on the issue, Bennett is drawing on the positives of his breakthrough win and LottoNL-Jumbo's recent winning streak.
"This year in the last month the team has been awesome. Obviously, Cali was great and Jos won the TT at the Giro and we had the stage win at the Dauphine. At Ster ZLM they've won almost every stage and I think the boys are on a roll," he said. "I think there is a really good vibe in the team with everyone buzzing on it and it means everyone wants to get on it. Even up in Norway, guys like Timo were winning up there.
"From a few years ago when we were really struggling for wins at this time of the year we felt like we were under pressure and stress, this year we are rolling better and bouncing off each other, and no one wants to miss out."
With LottoNL-Jumbo on a roll and Bennett more focused on the Tour than any of his previous five Grand Tours, he could well become the New Zealander to win an individual stage of the Tour.
"At the Tour, the prospect of getting a result is just amazing. If I could sneak a result, that is why I ride a bike at the moment and it is extremely exciting. The team have been really good, they told me already last year that I would be going to the Tour and they've given me the perfect opportunity to build up. We've taken a pretty different approach to the top tier guys by not doing Dauphine or Suisse or anything like that. Just a big hard training camp and hoping that is going to pay off in the last two weeks. I might struggle a little bit in the first week without the racing in the legs but I think when you a prospect like the Tour, it is not too hard to push yourself every day in training."