George Bennett's preparation for the Vuelta a Espana has been less than ideal having spent more time at the pre-race training camp in bed than on his bike, he will start "nothing to lose" on Saturday.
"I had more or less two weeks completely off the bike. I did a couple of one-hour rides. I was meant to for a bit longer but just kept having to go home. Finally a few days before San Sebastián I started to lose the symptoms and was excited to race," Bennett told Cyclingnews. "I went there with my girlfriend and tried to make a weekend of it. I actually raced surprisingly well. Ok, I wasn't good but I was still there and was 30-something and could attack in the finale and was active in the race. It is a nice race but in the race, I still felt like I kept on yawning. Which was quite strange. I came home and rode to Andorra a few days later to start a week training camp."
While a training camp pre-Tour went to plan for Bennett and LottoNL-Jumbo, it was a different story when preparing for the Vuelta as he described.
"The next day, I felt completely crook again and instead of a virus, this time I had a throat infection. I went on antibiotics and spent the training camp in bed," he said. "I managed to string a couple of rides together and did maybe three big, big rides and the rest of the time was just trying to recover. Then I came back to Girona and have basically been off the bike and done a few short sessions over the weekend and have not built up for the Vuelta in any shape or form. It is an interesting approach to the Vuelta. Normally I go to training camps in the mountains and this time I have been laying in bed so this time so we'll see how this works out for me."
2016 was a breakthrough year for Bennett in which he made his Tour and Olympic Games debut and finished tenth overall at the Vuelta. The 27-year-old had a delayed start to the 2017 season due to glandular fever, recovering to finish top-ten at Abu Dhabi Tour, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, and 11th at Vuelta al Pais Vasco. Bennett then claimed the first win of his career with the Tour of California in May and was on track to record the best ever GC result at the Tour by a Kiwi.
Days out from the Vuelta, Bennett is unsure how he'll fare results wise but is confident he is over the worse of the illness.
"The main thing is that health is on the way up. Form, I wouldn't even dare put a number on it," he said. "I did such a big build up for the Tour and the 16 days I was at the Tour was so hard that that is not lost and that is in there somewhere. I know it's a cliché but it will be like a case of rediscovering that form in the Vuelta. It might only take a couple of days, a couple of intensity sessions and then you're back in the game and who knows? I don't think I am anywhere close to how I have been the rest of the season.
"I still think on a course like the Vuelta, somewhere along the line in the three weeks I am going to do good things. Whether that comes in the form of trying to win a stage or being great support for Steven Kruijswijk or helping the young guys out who are at the Vuelta and taking a bit more responsibility on that front. And I want to do a Grand Tour and I think I need it for my body just for experience and development heading into next year."
Stage 3 of the Vuelta ventures into Andorra and onto roads that Bennett has come to know as well as the those of his native New Zealand. However, he anticipates the stage will come too early in the race for him to challenge for the win. But he isn't ruling out having a crack regardless.
"I would love to do well there but it is too early. There are guys who have come off racing Poland of whatever and have at least been able to train intensely. It is a bloody hard stage with Rabassa and then Comella is technical and a really tough final," he said. "I also know all the roads thorough Fontpédrouse. If that was stage eight or nine, I'd love to say I'd give it a good nudge but I think I am realistic and that it's still a bit early in the piece. I am going to try, I am absolutely going to try. I haven't ridden of even doing a GC myself but I think it's pretty realistic."
Tour de France reflections
Despite proving his GC chops with Tour of California victory, Bennett's ambition at the Tour revolved around stage wins rather than the overall. He shifted focused after the exhilarating stage into Chambéry that lifted him into tenth place overall.
"It was a crazy day and I just had so many near misses and I was just shitting myself that day," he reflected on stage 9. "The last downhill and I was just behind the front and we were flying down the first half and then came around the corner, I was on the front, and saw Richie and Dan Martin. I just lose my nerve completely and struggled to get down the rest of the hill and luckily Yatesy waited for me a little bit because I had been helping him on the first part of the hill. It was a day that was extremely exciting and awesome to be a part of but it was also pretty unnerving. Especially seeing Richie in the state that he was."
Bennett enjoyed life in the top-ten through to stage 13 into Foix when he dropped to 11th before his eventual abandon. Rather than dwell on the disappointment, Bennett explained that the Tour gave him new levels of self-belief. More so than his breakthrough Cali win.
"I left Cali really happy and really proud of myself that I'd got a win but I was also super aware of the fact that it wasn't the big show. In the Tour, I am still so far away from being in the realm of the top guys but at least I was able to be there," he said. "That was big for my confidence. That was why I wasn't going for GC in the Tour. I was going for stage wins, because I didn't really think I could stick it with the top guys in the mountains on the big stages. That was good for the confidence and now I believe I can take it to another grand tour or the Tour and maybe with a team and different preparation and not lose stupid time in the first week and not get sick obviously and give it a crack."
Heading into the Tour, LottoNL-Jumbo were backing in Bennett, Robert Gesink, Primoz Roglic and Dylan Groenewegen for stage wins. When Bennett withdrew from the race, he joined Gesink on the sidelines after the Dutchman crashed out with fractured vertebrae painting a bleak picture for the team. While Bennett "kept falling asleep" when trying to watch the Tour, when his "phone started going absolutely crazy", he knew it singled stage win success for the team.
"I could hear it in the other room and went and checked and knew that Dylan must have won," he said. "Obviously I went back and watched the replay a hundred times because I was just so impressed by it and that was a serious sprint to go from 300 out uphill on cobbles. Same with Primoz, I knew he was really strong and it was just a matter of time before he won a stage."
Feeling like he had let the team down by pulling out early, Bennett explained the stage wins helped him deal with the abandon but at the same time wanting to be in France to soak it in.
"That really helped me. It was a bit of a double-edged sword in terms of wanting to be part of it and you're sitting at home on your arse and they are off winning stages of the Tour," he said. "I also felt that the team had put so much into all of us for the Tour. They didn't feel this way at all, but I felt this sense that I'd let them down as well when I was gone so it was great. When I left we didn't have any stage wins and Robert was gone. A top ten would have saved the Tour but then, in the end, they did far better things and won two stages."
With the Tour behind him, Bennett's sole focus is on the Vuelta and remaining illness free to animate the race in his aggressive and 'nothing to lose' style.
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