• George Bennett ahead of Stage 7 of the Tour de France (Getty)Source: Getty
George Bennett, ranked fourth on GC after eight stages, has something many riders at the Tour don’t have: charisma and a sense of humour. He has also suffered an ongoing issue with ‘The Stitch’… but he thinks they’ve found the problem.
Rob Arnold

15 Jul 2019 - 11:23 AM 

He’s earned a few good results in the past: victory in the 2017 Tour of California, for example. Or eighth in last year’s Giro, or 10th in the 2016 Vuelta. And now George Bennett is a stage winner at the Tour de France. Still, he’s a little coy when that topic is raised.

“Oh yeah,” he laughs at being called a stage winner. “That’s a stretch.”

But it’s true. He’s the fourth Kiwi to win a stage at the Tour and just because all these victories have come in team time trials, it doesn’t dilute the accomplishment. But George is self-deprecating enough to admit how it really was in Brussels last Sunday.

“I can’t say I contributed too much,” he says of Jumbo-Visma’s triumph in stage two, “but ah… alright, it goes on the palmarès.”

And then, without a pause, he adds: “But I’d like to get my own one.”

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It could happen that the 29-year-old who has been a pro since 2012 gets his chance to shine. But he insists it isn’t going be at the Tour in 2019, and he says that as he’s ranked fourth on GC.

He’s climbing well and even earned chance to go for a (tiny) bit of personal glory in stage six. But now, he told me before stage eight, “It’s back to my day job.”

His priority is to look after his Dutch team’s Dutch leader, Steven Kruijswijk, who is only a little further down the overall rankings in seventh.

On a personal level, I’d be happier if Bennett was designated leadership status, even if it just negated the need to type ‘Kruijswijk’ one more time… but there’s more to it than that. Frankly, I’d like to see George prosper because he a bloody good bloke.

Given the chance to sit down for a beer with anyone in the peloton of the 2019 Tour, you’d be hard pushed to pick a better candidate than George Bennett.

He’s a prodigious talent who started his cycling career as a mountain biker but was soon lured to the road and, almost accidentally, picked up his first pro contract thanks to his consistency with the Livestrong development team in 2011. He seems to love all sports but he’s a Kiwi and so, of course, he played rugby.

When he told me that, I winced. The mental imagery I conjured wasn’t pretty. He’s tall enough, perhaps, but at 58kg of skin and sinew it seemed implausible for him to get on the field and tackle his peers. But he cherishes the memory of the game.

“Started when I was five,” he told me in January. “I was still playing rugby in my last year of school. I was 17 years old when I played my last game of footy.”

During a long, semi-formal chat – one finally not conducted under the blasting noise of a loudspeaker at the start of finish of a race, I told him who I wouldn’t like to see him tackle an All Black.

“Oh no,” he laughs, “you’d probably see my arm fall off or something.”

The passion lives on. He’s a Kiwi, of course he loves rugby.

What position did he play? “Open flanker.”

What was his strength? Was he fast? “No,” he replies. Then adds: “Not fast. Not big. Not particularly skilful.”

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And so he came to cycling. Lucky us. We get a fun personality and a little break in the monotony of the “take-it-day-by-day” and “see-how-the-legs-feel” responses. And it’s good for cycling fans in New Zealand because they have someone to cheer in the wee-small hours that the Tour is broadcast.

He came to pro cycling via MTB. And he came to mountain biking because, as he put it: “It was sweet-as… did some jumps” and he found the love.

I push for more info on his formative years in cycling: did you do some skids as well? “No,” he replies, with his trademark dry tone, “they were for kids.”

He’s from Nelson – on the south island where “everybody rides mountain bikes and drinks craft beer”. It’s near to what he insists are “the best MTB trails in the world” but enjoys living a Euro lifestyle, even if he also finds himself in the US quite often.

Now he’s racing the Tour for the third time. There’s been early success for Jumbo-Visma, a couple of stage wins, some days in the yellow jersey, another sprint win in stage seven… and soon we’ll see Bennett a lot more as he paces Kruijswijk up the climbs of the Pyrenees and Alps in the second stanza.

One day he could be the leader in his own right but before that happens, Bennett hopes he can overcome the one thing that has plagued his career since he started cycling, ‘The Stitch’.

More on 'The Stitch' and Bennett's setbacks:
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