George Bennett surprised at third place on Tour de Pologne's first summit finish
New Zealander still aiming for relaxed build-up to Vuelta a Espana
Prior to stage 4 of the Tour de Pologne, gambling on Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) or Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing) to win the uphill finish would have felt like a fairly safe bet.
Indeed, Kwiatkowski won the stage, with Teuns in second place. But placing money on George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) to take third on the stage – as the New Zealander managed to do – might well have felt a bit riskier. Quite apart from Pologne being his first race back since the Giro d'Italia, earlier on stage 4 he'd not felt all that great, as Bennett told Cyclingnews afterwards.
"That was surprising," Bennett said, shortly after stepping onto the podium to receive the fans' applause for his third place on the day. "I hate saying that, because I can't have felt that bad if I got third, but I actually felt quite rubbish before, and I knew how hard the final climb was because I'd watched a video of it [from 2017].
"And then we went for it anyway, and when I thought we had 300 metres to go, I was thinking, 'I'm in trouble,' but then I saw the 100-metres-to-go sign and I actually thought the Movistar guy [early attacker Richard Carapaz] was still in front.
"But we were just going, and Michal put his hands up, and I was, like, 'Oh, shit, I got third.'
"I'm happy, I'm relieved, because I wasn't feeling good at all," said Bennett. "But obviously I wasn't feeling that bad, because I ended up third."
Bennett's pre-race plan for the kilometre-long ascent to Szczyrk was, broadly speaking, as he told Cyclingnews before the stage, to "give it a go and see what happens".
"I actually wanted to follow Simon Yates [Mitchelton-Scott] on the climb, as he's awesome on stuff like this, but I couldn't find him. I was quite a way behind him," Bennett explained. "And then I saw him about a minute later, and I think he was about to go, but he might have got boxed in. I'd have to watch the video."
Instead, Bennett opted to follow the winning duo, with near-optimum results.
The New Zealander said he was more than satisfied with how the stage had gone, both in terms of the result and how his LottoNL-Jumbo team had worked together.
"It was a nice stage, and the boys did really well," he said. "I was especially happy about how the big guys on the team, like Lars Boom, were going. They'd had their days [on stages 1 to 3] for our sprinter Danny Van Poppel as lead-out men. But then even Danny, and Lars and Tom [Leezer] – all the big guys switched roles on today's stage to help me. We really communicated, and I really felt like we had a good 'team thing' going on."
However, despite his unexpected success on stage 4, Bennett said he would stick to the same overall strategy that he had outlined for his 2018 Tour de Pologne when talking to Cyclingnews earlier in the day. In other words, he was not going to be pushing himself too hard during the race.
"Mate, I'm not veering – I'm not going to start saying, 'Oh, now I'm third,' and start trying to force it too much or something silly like that. It's a nice result, it's a bonus, but I don't want to turn this into another scenario where I, you know, ramp the focus up and then I get to the Vuelta a España and it’s not so good.
"That wouldn't be learning from my mistakes. It also raises the question, 'Do I want to be getting third, two weeks out from the Vuelta start?' You know what I mean?
"I hate this particular cliché, but unfortunately I really am going to be taking it day by day."
Talking to Cyclingnews before the stage 4 start, Bennett had said he would be taking a relatively laid-back approach to the Tour de Pologne, saying, "I'm super-relaxed here."
But after the stage, he talked about earlier 'mistakes' he'd made this year.
"I think I got it a bit wrong at the Giro d'Italia," the New Zealander explained. "I was really good and focused earlier in there season for the Tour Down Under, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Volta a Catalunya, and then the Tour of the Alps, and the first part of the Giro was really good.
"But in the second half of the Giro, I was really going downhill. So I'm trying to do the opposite kind of curve, and that's the thing about doing the Giro and the Vuelta this year: to try two very different build-ups, and see what works best heading into next year."
After eighth overall at the Giro, Bennett said that his target in Spain would be the GC again, in a race where he made his stage-racing breakthrough two years ago, taking 10th overall.
"I've got some very good memories of the Vuelta – and some terrible ones as well," Bennett said. "I went home early last year [quitting after stage 11 - Ed] because I'd got really sick at the Tour and hadn't recovered. I had some crazy virus that knocked me out for three or four months. There was no point in continuing. But, in general, I really like the Vuelta."
His objective in Spain, Bennett said, would be not only to do as well as possible on the GC, but to also "work on some of the things that went wrong in the Giro". With a new three-year contract signed with LottoNl-Jumbo in July, he specified targets like doing a better time trial, as well as rectifying whatever lay behind some "mechanical issues" on the Zoncolan stage of the Giro, which "cost me a bit of time and a few places" when his chain broke and his gears jammed.
"In the past, I've been very good in the third week of a Grand Tour, but at the Giro this year, I wasn't, so it's about getting back to being focused on that – as well as just enjoying three weeks of Grand Tour racing."
One less enjoyable factor could well be the heat in the first week of this year's Vuelta, with mid-afternoon temperatures often reaching the low 40s in inland southern Spain in late August and early September. But Bennett argues that, in his experience, good form and better resisting the heat often go hand in hand.
"If you're really going well, you feel the pressure of the heat a lot less. I've been up in Andorra a lot, training, and it hasn't been that hot. Then I went back to Girona the other day and it was, like, 40 degrees. I felt as though my head was going to explode when I was doing some efforts.
"So you need to adapt, for sure, but you also need a really good team-management strategy. I think as a team we're on the cutting edge of things to combat the heat, so I hope that kind of plays in my favour."
It's noticeable that when he discusses the Vuelta a España, unlike a fair number of potential GC contenders, Bennett doesn't immediately mention the World Championships as being a further reason to head to Málaga for August 25th's Grand Depart of Spain's Grand Tour.
"I'm definitely thinking about the World Championships, but I'm going to the Vuelta for the Vuelta, not for the World Championships," Bennett explained. "I'll tag on another couple of weeks after the Vuelta and save the big celebration – or the commiserations – for then."
If you've ever wanted to know what it feels like to be part of a top-level cycling team, and to be on the ground, inside the barriers, at the Tour de France, then RUNNING WITH WOLVES will take you there. It is available to rent for $3.99 USD or buy for $6.99 USD.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.