Back in February we were invited to the seaside town of Nelson. The home of one of the country’s best cyclists. High hills surround the Tasman–this is George Bennett’s training ground. The road zigzags out to the valley as we get closer to the Bennett’s residence. We pop over the hill–George’s strength hill–and continue down the valley. We pull up at a lush section opposite a river–this is the home of the Giro GC contender during summer.
As we walk inside, teas are brewed and the small talk begins. Being a fan myself, I’m stoked to be in the company of George as have seen him develop over the years. He greets me with a solid handshake as we continue to natter to Caitlin (his partner) – she is featured in Vol. 4. George is on the back of a rather large-volume week consisting of back-to-back 6-hour-plus rides. He’s interested that we are here but is understandably distracted and hungry after just returning from a full day in the saddle. The fridge door is constantly opening and closing as he decides on what to eat next. Most of us have been there post ride.
I can’t help but spot the toll of the miles on George’s face. Pro racing is relentless – this is the real deal. Whilst most of us can relate to a long day in the saddle, we truly have no idea what these men and women put themselves through. His last day of the huge volume week was a long ride riddled with efforts. The efforts needed to replicate the race situation that he’ll be facing throughout May. It’s a long game approach when preparing to do battle during in a Grand Tour.
George is relaxed, humble and incredibly down to earth. If you didn’t know he was one of the world’s best cyclists, you might think he’s just some bloke from Stoke. Actually, he resides in Aniseed Valley. But this is his charm and whilst the euro’s might not get it he stays kiwi to the core. In fact, the LottoNL-Jumbo team often tell him to wear shoes instead of jandels as they think he might get sick from wearing open shoes. His response; “I won’t get sick wearing jandels I’ll get sick if someone sneezes on me. The team even has someone who goes through the room and cleans them down/checks aircon before the riders arrive.
He talks candidly about his team environment when riding a Grand Tour. The team’s food is all prepared and heated up at the hotels. Whist George says it’s healthy he craves a home cooked meal by the end of the tour. Cleary a lot of thought goes into meal selection in relation to the next day’s stage. For example; meat that takes a long time to digest (i.e red) is only given ahead of the rest days. As it’s harder to digest - so you don’t won’t that on board when tackling over 5,000m of climbing!
If the team does well, they celebrate with champagne. However, George states the riders only have a sip as they have a big day tomorrow – it’s mainly the staff that have the Champagne. While the riders look forward to a rest day as we do to our weekends they are still super busy days. Between massage, osteopath sessions, 30min allotted time with your partner, sleep, training and media commitments it’s hardly a rest?! Being quite a traditional team, the spouses often meet their riders in the hotel foyer. And, any intimacy is frowned upon.
Being based in Europe, George has had to learn a few languages. He’s now well versed in French, Italian, Spanish and Dutch. The LottoNL-Jumbo team speak Dutch and he when he first joined the team he was the only English-speaking rider on the team. He says, “it’s fine most of the time but it’s around the dinner table, when everyone is speaking Dutch that really cracks me. I’ll always try and bring the conversation back to English.” The team is now international, and they have a few riders that don’t speak Dutch at all. I can imagine that would be pretty hard. Thankfully LottoNL-Jumbo’s race radio communications is now in English. It used to be in Dutch which was hard for George to translate during critical moments of the race. Imagine being super tired, climbing a mountain, having the DS screaming through the radio and then translating Dutch to English?
Whilst in his final week of Giro preparation I was fortunate enough to chat with George. He was driving back from Andorra, despite the dodgy cellphone reception we got a few questions to him.
Suffering Tips – what’s the psychological strategy that you use to get ready pre and during the race.
“Pre-race you can’t get too excited as it’s three weeks, you can’t stay excited about something for that long, especially when all the good stuff happens at the end. Staying calm, the people around are more g’d up than I am, and they can sweat the small stuff. I just have to look after my body and not get sick. The big thing is not going out on a knife-edge and trying something different, I’ve been riding well up until this point and I should have a good Giro.” And then during the race when you’re deep into it, like after the second week and you’re in a mountain stage. “You just have to have a streak of mongrel, you go out of your head and don’t think logical thoughts. You have go through the motion and turn on the aggression, if you don’t have the aggression you’ll be in for a bad day.”
What’s the go to food when you’re hurting in the race.
“Gels, I’ll smash them. If it’s a real hard stage, I’ll go through nine of them. I’ll eat normal food in the easier stages (sprint and intermediate) rice cakes, sandwiches and whole food. What about the end of the stage, what drink does the soigneur have. “Yea, at the end of a tough stage we have cherry juice – the best thing people at home can use is something that’s high in glucose, such as Sujon berry powder because that has the same stuff, it prevents muscle damage.”
Who in your cycling career has been pivotal to getting were you are today and why was that?
“The first guy ever to help was Jim Matthews, he owned Village Cycles (In Richmond) for more than 30 years. He not only sponsored me but gave me a job when I was young. I worked there for a year fixing bikes. Every day he taught me something whether it was about bikes or life in general he was pretty pivotal.” George went on to highlight Mike Stylianou of Santa Cruz Bikes, Robin Reid of Village Cycles but there’s too many to list from mentors to family that have supported him over the years.
Going into the Giro, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt during a Grand Tour?
“Don’t get your head down after a bad day. You can have a bad day, but three weeks is a bloody long time, keep chipping away. As a GC rider you have to be on for every stage – every day you can lose, there’s no day that you can really switch off.”
And, lastly what’s your Giro ambition?
“It’s hard to put a number on it, in terms of a result. Do the best three weeks I can do. Try and get through the three weeks without any mistakes and ride the best that I can, with that I think I can get a nice result.”
We can’t wait to watch George turn it up during the Giro!
Words & Images: Liam Friary & Cameron Mackenzie/Chris Auld
First appeared in print in Volume 5 of the NZ Cycling Journal. Subscribe today.