• George Bennett had a breakthrough career victory at the Amgen Tour of California. (Getty)Source: Getty
Kiwi climber George Bennett has come of age taking out the Tour of California in a season that illness just months ago, threatened to totally wipe.
Sophie Smith

Cycling Central
22 May 2017 - 8:06 AM  UPDATED 22 May 2017 - 8:14 AM

On paper, it appears the 27-year-old simply opted to skip southern hemisphere summer racing to prepare for a campaign that has steadily progressed upward since February. 

But Bennett wasn’t sure if he’d even be able to compete with LottoNL-Jumbo this year after being diagnosed with mononucleosis in December.

“Originally when I got it, [the team] wiped all the races from my calendar and said maybe you can come back in California, or the Tour or something. I was thinking I’d just take a week off, but they were really serious about it, started telling me a few horror stories. I was left thinking, shit, okay, it’s something you don’t mess around with,” Bennett told Cycling Central from the U.S.

Huffman slays another ATOC giant as Bennett wins the overall
Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling) out sprinted his four breakaway companions to win the final stage of the Amgen Tour of California. Australia's Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data) took out the final young rider's classification as New Zealander George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) retained the overall.

The sixth-year professional believes a combination of working and playing hard during the off-season caused the virus that he said still shows in blood tests.

“I had a crazy season last year. From California, I rode the Dauphine, rode the Tour, went straight to San Sebastian, straight to the Olympics and then went to the Vuelta. I didn’t have a weekend at home for months -- just raced. You can imagine by the time I finished the Vuelta I was pretty ready to let my hair down. I had a friend’s stag do, a wedding but I also started training again and burnt the candle at both ends.”

Bennett said he did a power test somewhere in the mix that was “miserable”, but he put it down to a hangover. He relaxed training for about a week and then started a billed race, against London and Rio Olympic gold medallist rower Hamish Bond, in his Nelson hometown where he realised he wasn’t healthy.

“He put 25 minutes into me in this race,” Bennett half-heartedly laughs. “I knew something was pretty wrong. I was completely man down for quite a while.”

The gravity of the virus and side effects including fatigue is increased when you consider similar symptom-related cases like Marcel Kittel, who was shelved for most of 2015, and Mark Cavendish, who has not competed since Milan-San Remo due to Epstein-Barr.

Bennett hasn’t harboured on it, however, as a seventh overall finish on season debut at the Abu Dhabi Tour in February, ninth at Volta a Catalunya, and an 11th place at Vuelta al Pais Vasco attests.

“I guess if you said in December, ‘what is 2017 looking like for you?’ I’d probably say grim and quiet, so it’s definitely been nice. To be honest, I don’t even think about. It was a long time ago and I worry about what I’m going to do tomorrow more than anything,” he said.

To claim victory in California was simply a return to form would undermined Bennett’s increasing development that was showcased in the individual time trial at Big Bear Lake. Speaking on the eve of the sixth stage, which he finished fourth to take the leader’s jersey, he admitted that his only top 10 finish in a time trial had come a month prior at Pais Vasco.

Bennett puts his consistent improvement down to maturity as he now turns to a new page to prepare for the Tour de France exclusively through training. He believes LottoNL-Jumbo will send an opportunistic squad, over a line-up based around Robert Gesink, opening the door to further career defining possibilities.

“I guess getting older helps, you develop the fuel tank as opposed to the engine. And, my trainer, we have developed a pretty good relationship where he is working out how I need to be and it involves doing massive hours,” he said.

Bennett finished 10th overall at the Vuelta a Espana last year – the first New Zealander to mark a top 10 result in a Grand Tour – but has dismissed vying for such a standing in France this year.

“I could go confident I could finish top 15, but … it’s a big risk when you could waste 10 opportunities to try and win a stage. If you could win a stage that would put you, as a climber, in an elite group of people,” he justified.

“I would love to be a Grand Tour contender; I don’t know if that’s realistic or not yet. If you looked at me a couple of years ago, you’d probably say it’s not realistic but I’m getting better every time.

“If I started a Grand Tour now I’m not a contender but if I keep the progress up I wouldn’t rule it out.

“I just want to get the absolute best out of myself. I really enjoy cycling. It’s not one of those things where people go, ‘cycling is so hard, I do it for a job’. I really have a passion for it, love training and I’m enjoying [it] now more than ever. I’d like to see how far I can get.”