It was a record breaking Tour de France for New Zealand cycling, with Jack Bauer, George Bennett, Dion Smith and Patrick Bevin all starting – to outdo last year's record of three Kiwis in the race.
What’s more, they all had an impact; making this year’s viewing for New Zealanders more engaging and exciting than ever before. It was a well talked about subject that the four Kiwis outnumbered the three Americans lining up and New Zealand is inching closer to the nine riders Australia had competing.
“As a New Zealander one couldn’t be anything but proud to see four Kiwis on the start line at this year's Tour de France,” New Zealand’s most successful pro rider Julian Dean told NZ Cycling Journal. “I had many media people and colleagues asking me what I put the record number of Kiwis participating down to. In my view there was no one reason why we had more at this year's start line other than a matter of circumstances. We have more New Zealand riders than ever before in World Tour and Continental teams so on numbers alone it is only right that we are better represented.”
Dean, who competed in seven Tour de France races, says he felt all the Kiwis that were at the start had earned their place and although it was very much a learning experience for the youngsters Smith and Bevan, their teams wanted them there because they see them as important for the future.
“The test will be how many are present at the start in the coming years and if it continues like this year, we can definitely boast that we are making inroads into the world of professional cycling.”
Bauer says it was a very proud moment to be on the start line with three fellow Kiwis: “It’s not easy to make it in the world of pro cycling and the hardest thing of all is to make the line-up for the Tour de France,” he says.
“To see Paddy and Dion make it was amazing. I thought I’d be there and that was the same for George, so to see Paddy and Dion prove themselves was great. Both were fantastic; Dion was unbelievably strong and finished in really good shape while Paddy did something I couldn’t do; continued on with a broken bone.”
Bevin's debut Tour de France started with an almost race ending crash in the rain in Dusseldorf, but he survived to continue riding; only revealing after finishing in Paris that he had ridden the Tour with a broken foot.
“I got 90 kilometres up the road riding broken a couple of years ago,” Bauer says. “Riding with an injury and in pain just wears you down, so I really don’t know how he did it, hanging in broken day by day to finish his first full length Grand Tour was truly impressive and I saw more of him in the race as it progressed.”
Like all New Zealanders watching the Tour, Dean felt for Bennett falling victim to a gastro bug and having to pull out of the race after doing so well: “It is shattering getting that close and doing everything right at the race and in the months leading up to it only to have it come undone by something that is out of your hands.
“He is a tough bastard and he showed the fight he has in him on the stage when he fought to hang on as his illness took hold. He will be back and he can take a lot of confidence from his performance here. He knows, as do we all now do, what he is capable of at the Tour de France and the best thing of all is he has plenty of time left in his career and the Tour comes around every year. I look forward to seeing New Zealand get behind him in 2018.”
Bauer says Bennett has gained a lot in confidence and wisdom on the bike, and raced with ‘a lot of maturity’ at the Tour until getting ill: “I didn’t even know he’d gotten sick and had gone home. He was firing and that was a real shock. It’s such a fine line with your immunity so low you can pick up anything and it can go through the peloton; there were a few that got sick and had to pull out.
“I was so disappointed for George. His mental and physical condition was so good and he was achieving way over what people were expecting.”
Dean, who now works as an Assistant Sport Director for Australian World Tour Team Orica Scott, outlined that 2017 has seen a big shift in targets for the team, saying they have gone from a team seeking opportunistic stage wins to now being serious in the General Classification.
“General Classification was our major goal for this year's Tour. That required a major mind-set shift from all those that work in the team from the mechanics to medical staff and masseurs. Every day becomes important and although on many days there is not the glamour of being in the mix, it is about limiting losses and staying in contention.”
Deans says it was a real highlight at this year’s Tour to see how everyone in the Orica-Scott team embraced this mind-set knowing that if things took a turn for the worse they could potentially end up with nothing. The team ended up with a very credible result with British rider Simon Yates doing what his brother Adam did last year, winning the young riders' white jersey classification while finishing seventh overall.
Seeing his Quick Step Floors team mate Marcel Kittel win so many times was ‘just incredible to be part of’ says Bauer: “To set out and do that (deliver Kittel to stage wins) as a team and achieve it, was pretty special but to ride in Marseille in New Zealand champion colours in the time trial giving it a real crack was my personal high this year.”
After taking the opening prologue easy in the wet, Bauer unleashed on the stage 20 time trial, storming around the course to be amongst the leaders early on, eventually finishing eleventh just 41 seconds down on stage winner Maciej Dodnar: “There’s not many opportunities to go in all guns blazing, and I just missed out on the top 10 by three seconds but it was still a nice moment and to have the legs that deep into the Tour and be in the sun in white national colours in Marseille felt really good.”
Being in the ‘shape of my life’ at this year’s Tour with all his limbs intact made for a pretty satisfying three weeks after crashes ended his 2015 and 2013 Tour efforts.
“I was climbing better than I ever have so could give Dan (Martin) a little early support in the hills and we wanted to fight in Paris to seal the green jersey so it was pretty disappointing for the team and obviously him (Kittel) going home injured.”
Dean says he always took the time to catch up with any of the Kiwi riders when time allowed: “We had our own WhatsApp group going, however true to the Kiwi male form, nothing was said within the group until stage 10 when Nacer Bouhanni struck out at Jack (Bauer) coming into the final, at which point all the boys were on the group messaging Jack telling him they have his back.
“Needless to say, it brought a smile to my face. Following that the next major point of discussion for us was George having to leave the race when we were all sharing his anguish. I think that at difficult moments like these, it is a good feeling to have like-minded countrymen to share the testing times with.”
The incident where Bauer was on the end of the Bouhanni punch attracted its fair share of attention, something the Kiwi shrugs off saying he ‘thought nothing of it at the time’. Bouhanni was penalised but Bauer admits he did lean on him first, saying the riders all lean on each other to make space, but thought it was all part of racing aggressively and although the Kiwi says Bouhanni made good contact, it wasn’t something he expected anything to be made of.
“It’s the Tour after all; in the moment something was said and after that nothing was said. It’s just the kind of rider he (Bouhanni) is. He goes about doing his thing and is a fairly polarising character in the bunch, so I had to choose my words carefully afterwards.”
Peter Sagan’s ejection from the Tour caused a huge amount of controversy after the World Champion was sent home following a crash on stage four in Vittel with Dean acknowledging it was ‘a difficult situation’.
“The riders themselves conducted themselves well over the saga and what I know of Sagan, it is not something he would have intentionally done,” Dean says. “There is no doubt that for the Bora team it was a big loss. Sagan is said to be a four million euro investment for Bora and given the Tour de France is eighty per cent of a team's exposure in a year in financial terms, it could be considered more than a three million euro loss.”
Dean is adamant that what cycling needs, given the sport is now dealing with such big dollars, is the chance to contest such decisions immediately after the fact via an independent third party such as the Court of Arbitration in Sport, allowing the decision to be resolved before the start of the stage the next day.
Bauer got to see up close how the racing was unfolding as the sprint trains went head to head during the closing kilometres of the flatter stages, saying Sagan was ‘throwing his weight around a fair bit before the stage four crash, so it (his disqualification) was all about a combination of a lot of behaviour that was going down’.
“He’s in the World Champ strips so people get out of his way and sprinters tend to take risks and the jury had to have balls to send him, the highest profile rider, home. I really didn’t know what to make of it all, but he had been pretty active up to that point so when it (the crash) happened it was like it was the final nail in the coffin.”
Dean was not of the opinion that there were more crashes then previous years, acknowledging that although the opening time trial claimed its victims, that was only due to riders putting it on the line in the wet on a city circuit riding time trial bikes.
Chris Froome took his fourth Tour win, moving to within one win of some of the sport’s biggest legends earning the grudging respect, if not outright admiration, of the French public who used to throw cups of urine and spit at him.
Froome’s Sky team has the biggest budget in cycling so can afford to bring the deepest squad to the Tour, but besides having the strongest team to back him up there is no doubt he has also matured, both as a rider and as a team leader, meaning winning at least another Tour is possible. But Dean is quick to point out he was not as dominant this year as in previous years.
“Can he win five? It’s difficult to say,” Dean says. “More the question will be who has the capacity and the team to challenge him. It is difficult to see anyone out of this year's top 10 getting to the level within the next two years.
“Most riders have a missing component to their arsenal judging on this year's Tour. Certainly I think that as Simon and Adam Yates get stronger, grow more consistent and improve on their time trialling, they'll have what it takes.
“Realistically the only real possibility will be Giro winner, Tom Dumoulin in the next two years. He is the complete package, he showed that he has what it takes for three weeks at the Giro this year and if there is a Tour de France with longer time trials he will be a real threat.”
Bauer thought it was great to see the likes of Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet and his team mate Martin so aggressively trying to break the stranglehold Sky had but acknowledges Froome was too complete all round and strong mentally, so deserved his win.
So for New Zealand fans the obvious question is just how well can Bennett go, and Dean has no hesitation to say he thinks the next five years for Kiwi fans and Bennett will be very exciting: “He has the goods to be on the podium in Paris if the stars align for him and although he was struck by misfortune this year, he can take a lot of confidence from his performance and his progression over the past 18 months. In my time I have certainly seen riders with less talent and with less hunger than George on the podium in Paris.”
Bauer says: “Kiwis can do anything, but it would take a lot, a hell of a lot, for a Kiwi to win the Tour. Our development and support is just not there. You need it right from the start, as a kid, to make it to a pro level good enough to take on the tour at the Top but I wouldn’t put a limit on his (George Bennett’s) abilities.
“He’s done some amazing things, so why not dream a little and he’s also got the backing of a very experienced team, a team (Team LottoNL-Jumbo) I would have never picked a Kiwi kid would go to.
“The future for George looks pretty bright, especially if his team continue to build and invest in him. He’s getting the support he’s never had before and the results are coming so it’s pretty exciting for him.”
Bauer also further enhanced his reputation at this year’s Tour, riding extremely well for his Quick Step team, featuring as part of Kittel’s lead out train and often being the last man standing for team mate Martin when things went uphill.
“Jack is the perfect team mate and for this he is one of the most respected athletes in the peloton,” Dean says.
Dean thinks one of the most notable Kiwi riders missing out on a Tour spot this year was Tom Scully, who he says has been having some great rides and wins for the Cannondale team and with a little perseverance will make the grade to ride the Tour in the not too distant future.
The Tour was not short of its fair share of controversy, with many pointing to French favouritism regarding several key decisions; including overturning one that saw Bennett and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) handed a 20-second penalty for taking a water bottle with five kilometres to go on Stage 12 while French rider Bardet was not penalized for the same offence.
Then Thomas De Gendt was not given the Super Combatif award for the most aggressive rider in this year’s Tour even though spent over 1,000 kilometres in breakaways. It was instead given to French rider Warren Barguil who also won the King of the Mountain’s classification, but Dean says he’s not against a little bit of French bias in such an award.
“It is a judged category so it will always be open to interpretation. I am very respectful of the fact that it is a French race and although it is a global event it is still very much the pride of France and if a little love in the combative competition keeps them happy, engaged and proud of the event then where is the harm in that?
“At the end of the day it is still predominantly the hordes of French on the sides of the roads and in the towns with their barbecues, red wine and cheese that add so much to Le Tour.”
When asked why a French rider has not won the Tour in 32 years Dean points to the increase in the number of nationalities that now compete in the event: “You only have to look at where all the teams are from in the race with really only four French teams and the majority of the rest all being from outside western Europe.”
Dean says the upgrading of data and technology, such as power meters and radios, makes the Tour far more predictable than it has ever been: “Riders know exactly how to train and what is required and spend a lot of days before the Tour de France riding the key stages in training.
“Having one less rider (the UCI has announced that the number of riders will be reduced to eight instead of nine per team for next year’s Tour) has the potential to make a difference but it is likely that this will force teams to be more specialized, focusing just on the sprint or just on the overall.” Sky claimed its fifth victory in six years, its fourth with Froome and third in a row, so you have to wonder, is this a result of just team budget or something else?
Dean says Sky have a formula that is working well and they have confidence in how to make it happen, pointing out that they do have more money than most teams but not significantly more than a handful of other teams.
“What they are very good at is spending their resources on areas to make gains such as athlete support and technology. At the end of the day if one rider was good enough they could follow, follow and follow until Froome had one team mate and then try to beat him - and the simple fact is no one could.”
Maybe, just maybe, one day soon that rider might be a Kiwi, and it just might be George Bennett. Like Bauer says, let’s dream a little…
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