Cyclist George Bennett lines up at fourth Vuelta a Espana free of expectation

George Bennett became the first Kiwi to achieve a top 10 finish on a Grand Tour when he placed 10th at the Vuelta last year.

George Bennett became the first Kiwi to achieve a top 10 finish on a Grand Tour when he placed 10th at the Vuelta last year.

One of George Bennett's immediate responses to his cruel Tour de France withdrawal was to plot his comeback at the Vuelta a Espana.

He was desperate to bounce back after being forced out of the Tour on stage 16, illness dashing his dream of becoming the first New Zealander to achieve a top 10 finish at the world's premier bike race.

The third and final Grand Tour of the year was the obvious next target. 

The familiar roads of Spain - he lives in Girona - have been a happy hunting ground for him in the past, Bennett finishing 10th at the Vuelta last year. Outside of his Tour of California victory, it remains one of his best achievements.

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So if the natural desire is to continue improving, he wanted to challenge the likes of Chris FroomeVincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru for the red jersey. He wanted to push for a top five finish.

But when Bennett hits the startline of the time time trial in Nimes, France on Sunday (NZT), he will be doing so with the general classification far from his mind.

The illness that forced him out of the Tour came back "with force" and left him bed-ridden for approximately three weeks. He was left fatigued, often turning back early in training rides and in desperate need of a nap after exerting himself on the bike.

He recovered in time to join his LottoNL-Jumbo team-mates for a training camp in Andorra and passed some last minute fitness tests to be named in the nine-man squad. 

But the illness still took its toll and the limited preparation cost Bennett the leadership role which was he was set to share with Steven Kruijswijk.

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"When I left the Tour I had every intention of coming here to turn all my focus on the Vuelta," Bennett said.

"Right up until the second time I got sick I really believed I was coming for a result but it wasn't a whiplash reaction where I was pissed off and thought 'right'.

"It was a genuine intention and plan that could have worked really well but obviously my health got in the way of that and it's been incredibly frustrating to deal with. The past weeks have been, well, as you can imagine."

Bennett said he expected to struggle in the first week, given his lack of training, but he was confident his body would eventually "remember how to do it all". He said he would target a stage victory in the second half of the race and is happy to support Kruijswijk, who crashed out of the race last year.

"I've had a great run of being able to lead and now it's my turn to work. I don't find it hard to do because I know if it was reversed roles and Steven had been sick and I had been flying I would also expect him to chuck on the overalls and work for me.

"It also comes around in cycling and at the end of the day everyone does what is best for the team, you just have to, otherwise results don't happen. You just have to put egos aside and race for the good of the team and working for people comes naturally for me, it's what I've spent most of my career doing until this year so it's not a foreign task."

Bennett said the Vuelta will provide a sense of familiarity. Not only will this be his fourth time racing the event but he will be pedalling on roads that he trains on, he will be emersed in a language he hears on a day to day basis, and his girlfriend will be able to visit on rest days.

"The Tour de France is everything I dream of but it's so intense and crazy with the fans, the media and everything involved. The Vuelta you still get the quality of field but you don't have a 1000 people waiting for you to step off your team bus. It's just a beautiful race and I always have a good time and it's easy to be here relaxed, which is nice."

Bennett is one of four Kiwis lining up at the Vuelta, joining Sam Bewley (Orica-Scott) and Grand Tour debutants Tom Scully (Cannondale-Drapac) and Aaron Gate (Aqua Blue Sport).

 - Stuff


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