Road to the Giro: George Bennet

For Team LottoNL-Jumbo, the overall contender in the 2018 Giro d’Italia is 28-year old New Zealander George Bennett. Vifit Sport expert and cycling author Martijn Veltkamp spoke with the excellent climber after he just finished a four hour training ride in the Sierra Nevada, about his preparation for the Giro.

As spectators and fans, we can see what’s going on in the races themselves, but outside those races: what does an average day look like for you? 
‘It varies. At home in New Zealand I get up early, I do a ride for 5 or 6 hours and at 2 or 3 o’clock I spend the afternoon really relaxed hanging out with my family or my friends and just really sort of away from cycling you know. Not looking on the internet or anything, completely detached from the cycling world.’

Is it a conscious decision for you to be away from cycling?
‘I don’t know if it’s conscious, it’s just, that’s how it is in New Zealand, I’ve got better things to do. I do my training perfectly, but I’m in that environment where there’s not a single pro-cyclist several hundred kilometres around me, so there’s very little in my life there that relates to pro-cycling. It’s just all the other things I like doing.’

‘When I’m in Gerona,’ Bennett continues, ‘it’s a little bit more cycling-minded. I hang out with other bikers but it’s still a bit of a relaxed environment. I’m there with my girlfriend and I spend a lot of time turning off from cycling by spending time with music and guitars, or just being with other New Zealand guys that live in Gerona. And then being here [Sierra Nevada altitude training] is the other extreme, being here in training camp. I mean you wake up, your days are planned for you basically.’

And how much time do you spend on your bike in the off-season?
‘As the season ends I take 6 weeks without a bike completely, and then I start back to 3-hour rides. By the time I get to February you know, it’s pretty intense weeks. I spend 6 or 7 hours a day on my bike, and then a few rest days. It really ramps up as you get closer to the main goals.’

Your main goal is the Giro. When did the Giro preparations start for you?
 ‘It started first week of February, there is a lot riding, of work, that is the platform for the Giro. Then we head to Europe, and I can deal with the racing, getting good results and building confidence. Just have a strong early season. But everything is aimed at the Giro. And then we went straight to altitude. That’s where you turn the screws and you really focus. Before I was training a 100%, but now I’m training a 100% at altitude, so now the little things add.’

How do you deal with the Tirreno or the Volta a Catalunya then?
You rode pretty well there, with a 9th and 6th place overall. Are they goals in itself, or is the Giro always in the back of the mind?
‘In that week I focus on the result. But you know, I go there, I have fun, I enjoy them, and that makes them a lot easier. To go there stressed and under pressure, then you freeze up a little bit. So I go to every bike race - including the Giro - I go and do my best, and then at the end of the day that’s my number you know. If I do everything I can, then what else can I do? I had that attitude in Tirreno and Catalunya and it was going well, I could ride with the best guys. I mean, if you get nervous in Down Under, Cadels’ race, and then Tirreno, and Catalunya, that all adds up, it’s just not a sustainable lifestyle.’

You say enjoying the race is important, but how do you do that in Giro, with the pressure on?
‘It depends who you ask to. For sure there’s pressure from the team, the media or whatever, but some guys feel it more than others. For me, at the end of the day the people that I really care about are my friends and my family, and they don’t really care if I win or lose. Some guys get really wound-up about the media, but for me it’s not really my world. I didn’t grow up with cycling, I don’t follow it too much. I don’t really care what they think.’

Do you think that is your personality, or is it also the environment where you grew up?
‘It’s massively part of where I grew up, and of starting cycling late, and having spent most of my life being outside of cycling. I think that helps a lot. Pretty much all pressure I feel comes from myself and my own expectations, and I’m not going to be heavily influenced if a cycling website says that I didn’t achieve what I should have or something.’

You’re intrinsically motivated to perform well, then?
‘Yes. A huge part of that is growing up in New Zealand where it’s not part of the culture. In New Zealand, if you win a race, you’re like on the 5th page of the sports news in some small article. It doesn’t really matter you know.’

The start of the Giro is in Israel, where the situation is not stable. Does that affect you as a rider, and do you follow that news?
‘I do follow it actually because, I do have quite strong views I guess on religion or on politics, and the Israel-Palestine conflict hasn’t been dealt with well. I also understand the hassle of the situation. We’re sort of going there and pretending nothing is wrong. But from a point of view of trying to do a result in the Giro it’s not a great topic to wander into. It’s a tricky line to walk, between saying what you believe and also doing the best possible way to achieve what you’ve come for, which requires not being in the media spotlight and just worrying of riding from A to B as fast as you can.’

Talking specifically about the Giro itself: In preparing for it, do you already mark or visualize specific stages beforehand?
 ‘I’m probably more focused on the last week because stage 18, 19, and 20 are pretty hard back-to-back and because traditionally the last week suited me well. But there are also so many tricky stages and so many potential pitfalls out there… You never know which day you’ll be up and which day you’re going to have a bad day. I mean, you can put all the red circles around the stages you like, but you have to be brave when you’re on the bike in the race and not now.’ He laughs, ‘You might not even make it to those stages, you know what I mean? On the moment I just focus on my training programme and on getting myself physically as good as I can be.’

When would you be happy with your Giro this year?
‘This year’s special, very special, because of the start list. I think it’s the strongest start list that I ever saw in a Giro that I can remember. So it’s hard to put a number on it. I think I’d be happy when I get to Rome and I say “That was my best 3 weeks of racing, I did everything perfectly for 3 weeks”. We’ll see where that gets me.’