Blazin' Saddles: George Bennett on Valverde, British cycling and Chris Froome 'doing a Landis'
At the star-studded Rouleur Classic event in London, Eurosport's Felix Lowe spoke to LottoNL-Jumbo's George Bennett about breaking Grand Tour records for New Zealand, competing against the "baby-boomer" world champion Alejandro Valverde and managing the fall-out from his controversial comments about Chris Froome "doing a Landis".
Before appearing on stage at Rouleur Classic as ambassador for the premium bike-storage company Velohawk, George Bennett took 15 minutes out to chew the fat over a beer with Eurosport about the past 12 months and his hopes for the forthcoming 2019 cycling season.
Eurosport: Hi George. How have you been enjoying London in the off-season?
George Bennett: It's good. I'm here with my partner Caitlin and we've been a bit touristy this morning. We've hit the museums, the ice rink and a few classic Irish – English! – pubs.
ES: Looking back at 2018, your eighth place in the Giro was the best ever result for a Kiwi in a Grand Tour, but then things didn't go fully to plan in the Vuelta. How do you weigh up the success and frustrations from the season?
GB: I haven't quite reached my conclusions on that. I was pretty much top 10 in every race except the Vuelta so on the one hand there was a lot of consistency, but on the other a lot of frustration. I felt like I had reached my peak before the big races – at the Tour of the Alps before the Giro, and the Tour of Poland ahead of the Vuelta – then I never quite got there. So, it's been a frustrating year – as well as battling with my on-going side-stitch injury. I'm hoping that next year I can get things in order and sort it out.
ES: You're renowned for your consistency and tenacity but if you look at your palmares there's just the Tour of California overall, and no stage wins to your name. Is this something you'd like to address?
GB: Yeah, definitely. I came close this year with a lot of top fives, a few podiums and second place twice. But never got the arms up – and that hurts a little bit. You think I've been doing this long enough and come close enough enough times. But I think it's just a matter of time. You see guys who win once and then they starting winning more and more – they find the recipe and get a feeling for winning. That hasn't come yet but hopefully next year's the year.
ES: There was much talk this season about Movistar and their three leaders. But it was your LottoNL-Jumbo team who really took things to Team Sky in the Grand Tours with your aggression and coordinated attacks. With both Primoz Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk having such good years, where are you now in the pecking order?
GB: Definitely probably below those two guys now – I've come down a few pegs! Obviously you want to be number one but the important thing is that we ride together. I've ridden as a co-leader with Primoz a lot, with Stevie as well, and it all goes well. The last race we did was Lombardia. The race before that, Varesine, I went full aggressive and Rogla was conservative. Then on Lombardia we decided we'd swap it up. I mean, we're mates, we room together, all that stuff.
So it's not a situation when you get these leaders competing for leadership, it's more that we give ourselves options as a team. Those two had great years. For me, the Giro was quite disappointing because a few mechanicals probably took away a shot at a great result there. And I think the Vuelta was obviously a blow-out. So as things go for next year, you just have to accept that there are a couple of guys who have the priority but that doesn't mean I'm not going to get my chances to lead as well.
ES: You've just signed on for three years at LottoNL-Jumbo. How easy a decision was that?
GB: In the end it was pretty easy. We looked around and there was probably only a couple of teams I was open to offers from, just in terms of my personality and how the team operates. I also had to look at the riders on those teams.
For example, you look at a team like GreenEdge [Mitchelton-Scott] which is obviously a very good fit for me. But they have the Yates brothers [Simon and Adam], they have Esteban [Chaves] and then they've got these really great young riders coming up like [Jack] Haig. So there's not a lot of room somewhere like there.
But with Lotto-Jumbo, how they operate off the bike is so important. They have such a good set-up and they developed me as a rider when I came and was pretty average. Throughout the years slowly I've got better. So, it was quite easy.
ES: And Tony Martin is joining from Katusha-Alpecin – what will be bring?
GB: A lot of power, I think. You know, one thing we still lose a lot in is team time trials. In the Tour we had a pretty bad one – okay, in the Tour of Britain we won, but the rest have been pretty bad. Tirreno as well. I think he's not only got the experience but the horsepower. And also we need guys like Tony who can keep us out of the wind and be there in these drag races like the Tour when a team starts doing a lead-out train for the GC guys with 50k to go. You need a big engine like him.
ES: Despite your achievements this year, many fans will best remember you for your comment about Chris Froome "doing a Landis" in the Giro, or for the video of you giving a child a bidon during the Vuelta. Is that fair?
GB: Ok, the kid thing, how many times...? I mean, that's great. What people love about that is the kid. I've given kids a bottle thousands of times in my life – everyone else has as well – but this kid was just so enthusiastic and that was special. It just happens that someone was there with a camera but that's happened 10,000 times to a lot of people. So that's great.
The Landis stuff… [shakes head]… oooh… For me that's just a bit of a shocker. I was just talking to a team guy, having a laugh, whatever. Out of context, not malicious at all. It's not that I have any suspicions towards Chris Froome or that I think he shouldn't be there or something like that. But obviously, yeah, a sense of humour that has probably been lost on a lot of Brits – maybe? – or a lot of Americans? I don't know.
But it wasn't a comment that was for the masses. A joke that, if you said that to another Kiwi, they'd laugh about it. Cycling's got a terrible past and you have to be able to make fun about it, you know? I mean, you know, whatever. If you could take it back, you would. But it's out there – the team actually put it out there, because they also saw…
I mean, you have to say that that was the ballsiest ride from Chris Froome. And if you can't, I don't know – I think I got thrown under the bus a little bit with that comment. It is what it is, and if people want to remember me for that, then I guess it shows that I haven't done enough on the bike. Hopefully people need to watch bike racing a little bit more and not interviews.
ES: When you watched Kruijswijk attacking with 80km to go on the Tour stage to Alpe d'Huez, did you think that he was "doing a Landis" – or even "doing a Froome"?
GB: You know, I actually was going to tweet exactly that but then someone told me not to stir the pot. Because it was great – it was – and it was one the heroic rides. Stevie went up in everyone's books that day. He was a hero. And Froomey, the same. He's a hero. He did a heroic ride. I mean, I didn't even know what was going on that day [stage 19 of the Giro]. I had a radio but it cut out very early on. I haven't actually watched the stage back, but that's cycling these days, eh? Go long! Good stuff.
ES: You top-tenned in Il Lombardia at the end of the season. It's the only monument you've ridden to date. Are the one-day races an area you'd like to develop as a rider?
GB: I've only done a handful of one-day races in my life. I've never done the [spring] classics or any of that stuff. So Lombardia this year was a test – and I wasn't going well but ended up tenth. It wasn't my best race but I really, really enjoyed it. My big ambition is three-week races and one-week stage racing, but you look at the great stage racers like Tom [Dumoulin] and even G[eraint Thomas] – they can do awesome one-day races. I think that's the kind of versatility I need – also to be a great stage racer, you need to do both.
ES: You've mentioned before how tough the course was in the Rio Olympics. How did the world championships in Innsbruck compare?
GB: The worlds was pretty brutal. I think what made it so hard was that last climb and also the fact that they let the break get 20 minutes. We started riding full gas with 200km to go. For me it was all about the last climb – and that was such a filthy climb. I mean, I had to get off my bike because guys were coming in front of me, falling off. It was such a mental climb.
It's hard to compare it [with the 2016 Olympics]. In Rio I was battling different things – I was severely dehydrated, without bottles, without anything. This year it was more the distance and the crazy hard final. Both of them were some of the hardest days of my life on a bike, days that I'll remember for ever, and very cool to be a part. I think it was a great race.
ES: To see a 38-year-old veteran in Alejandro Valverde win the rainbow stripes – was it inspirational or demoralising?
GB: I didn't think I'd ever see a baby boomer get up for the world title. [Laughs] But you know, I think every cyclist has a worry that they're running out of time. I'm only 28 and I look at him and I think, 'S***, I've got a good 10 years ahead of me'. Maybe 11 great years if you can do what he does. Most guys shut it down at 34, 35, around that time. I take a lot of hope from seeing a veteran – who could literally race in the masters in New Zealand – do what he did.
ES: Now we've seen the route for both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, where do you think you'll be in 2019?
ES: Here we are at the Rouleur Classic which is packed to the rafters. There's no denying that cycling is booming in the UK. How impressed were you by the performances by British riders in 2018?
GB: Yeah, I think Britain is by far the greatest cycling nation in the world. I look at the Yates brothers – and they're a couple of years younger than me – and they're just killing it. And then, obviously, there's G with the Tour and Froomey with the Giro. I mean, Britain won all three Grand Tours – but on a lower level, as well as those guys, you've got Tao [Geoghegan Hart] and all these other guys coming up. No one compares at the moment.
ES: Who's your best mate at Jumbo?
GB: That's a tough one. There's a lot of Dutchies. A lot of them are retired but there's Jos van Emden, who's my roomie, who's taught me a lot about history, a little about time trials, but on the Giro he would tell me a little about what happened here and all that. So, yeah, Jos is a good friend of mine.
ES: And at 'home' in Girona?
GB: Again, there's a great group of Kiwi guys. I probably see [Mitchelton-Scott's] Sam Bewley every day of my life. We live in the same building up in Andorra as well, so probably Bewls.
George Bennett during the 2018 Giro d'ItaliaGetty Images
ES: You ended a recent article on Rouleur with the message, "Peace and stop littering". Could you expand a bit on the message?
GB: It's pretty simple: just stop bloody littering. It's something that absolutely s***s me, you know, when I see the state of things. Especially coming from New Zealand and then you just see this mountain of… and especially, because my partner Caitlin's a marine biologist and you see the state of the world, and a lot of that it just from humanity, destroying the place. So we've got to stop that.
ES: And finally, can you tell us a bit about the company you represent, Velohawk?
GB: It's a great New Zealand company who are just launching here and approached me to be their ambassador. Essentially, think of it as absolutely high-end, extremely secure bike storage – like a feature bike storage for your home, alarmed, impossible to break into. Basically you have guys with these €10,000 or €15,000 bikes lying around, and as we know, bike crime is on the rise. So this is something that you can put in your house or even in your parking lot or outside the house – because no one's getting into this thing.
After a few weeks of looking at the product I decided that I wanted to get involved. It's something that I feel has a big future and the interest already has been massive. It's not far away from being a standard in the home of bike owners.
ES: Many thanks, George, and all the best for the coming season.