George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) has started his last three seasons at the Tour Down Under but with the Australian WorldTour race cancelled this year, the 30-year-old will take the rare opportunity to begin his campaign with the Gravel and Tar race in his native New Zealand.
The Jumbo-Visma climber, who is set to target the Olympic Games in Tokyo later this season, travelled back to New Zealand after the 2020 road season and has spent recent weeks training on his home roads. This weekend he takes part in the 160km Gravel and Tar race as part of the national team and although he is not a regular gravel racer he’s more than looking forward to taking part in the 1.2 UCI registered event.
“The call went out in December from the national team to see who wanted to do the New Zealand Cycle Classic but I didn’t really want to get involved in a stage race this early, and then I had a friend’s wedding, but this is a one-day race and it looks really cool,” Bennett told Cyclingnews.
For the Grand Tour specialist the Gravel and Tar event provides a welcome environment of home-based competition mixed with some of the elements that first drew him towards cycling. He will race on his Cervelo team bike and although he may make some small tweaks to his setup before the event he’s simply looking forward to the overall experience.
“It’s a bit like how it used to be in that I’ll be travelling around with my mates, cleaning my own bike and it’s like I’m returning to the magic of cycling and before it all became really professional. I still really love it, obviously, but this is about travelling with my friends, getting ready in the back of the car and just getting out there and getting going. It’s a great opportunity but it’s also a great chance to support New Zealand racing. We’ve got so many good young riders but it’s a bit of an unrecognized scene and this is just a good chance for them to race against WorldTour guys.”
Bennett readily admits that he’s not fully prepared for what lays ahead in the race but having enjoyed the dirt roads of Strade Bianche in the past he’s excited about the chance to mix up his racing calendar for the first time in a while.
“I think it’s about 50 per cent gravel but I still need to do some homework,” he said.
“I didn’t know how much gravel there was going to be before I signed up. I’m hearing rumours that there’s a lot. I train on the gravel quite a bit and I have a gravel bike as there aren’t a huge amount of roads here so you do need to ride the odd gravel road here and there. I’ve only done Strade Bianche once, the year that it was super muddy, but I actually had a great time and really loved it. It might be a different story when you don’t have a WorldTour team around you and dropping you off and a mechanic with spare wheels. It’s going to be a bit more hectic this weekend but my main priority is to stay safe and then to have fun and enjoy it. I’m not race ready but I’ll still give it a crack and take this as a cool opportunity.”
Bennett is set to return to Europe in the coming weeks with Paris-Nice pencilled in as his first road race of the season. From there he will mix stage racing and one-day ambitions, although Jumbo-Visma are yet to announce their complete Grand Tour ambitions for both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. Last year Bennett was set to lead the team at the Giro but he was eventually called up to race the Tour de France. With the Olympics set to feature prominently in his season the likelihood is that he will once again target the Giro. Jumbo-Visma’s official plan will be made clear later this week.
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