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The last time George Bennett started the Amgen Tour of California, he won the race.
He didn’t win any stages at the 2017 edition, but on the strength of several high placings in the mountains and a strong time trial, the 29-year-old Kiwi took the first (and only) pro victory of his career, ahead of Rafal Majka and Andrew Talansky.
Two years later, Bennett is back. And he aims to win again.
It’s a very different race in 2019 than it was two years ago. Majka is racing the Giro d’Italia. Talansky has retired. There is no time trial this time around. Richie Porte is in the race, as is Rigoberto Uran, Max Schachmann, and 20-year-old phenom Tadej Pogacar.
Bennett has something up on all these riders, however. Though he’s only taken one professional victory, he’s an Amgen Tour of California champion. (He’s actually got something else up on these riders; he’s got the sharpest custom-painted shoes in the peloton, courtesy of his girlfriend Caitlin Fielder.)
The Jumbo-Visma rider has amassed a number of top-10 finishes at weeklong stage races over the past few years: eighth at Tirreno-Adriatico, sixth at Catalunya, fifth at Tour of the Alps, and most recently, sixth at Paris-Nice. His Grand Tour record has been solid, but less consistent. He placed 10th at the 2016 Vuelta a España, and eighth at the Giro d’Italia last year, but in 2017 he was forced to abandon both the Tour and the Vuelta.
And while his teammate Primoz Roglic is currently leading the Giro as one of the pre-race favorites, Bennett is in Sacramento, seeking another victory of his own.
Two other riders in the Amgen Tour of California field have won the race before — Peter Sagan, in 2015, and Tejay van Garderen, in 2013. Sagan is not targeting the GC; van Garderen, who finished second overall last year, is here to win, and is backed by an EF-Education First squad that includes Uran, Lawson Craddock, Lachlan Morton, and the team’s newest signing, 21-year-old Colombian Sergio Higuita. Last year’s winner, Egan Bernal (Ineos) is sitting out the Giro d’Italia with a broken collarbone.
With no time trial at this year’s event, the big question is who will be the best climber atop Mt. Baldy on Friday.
“Winning [the overall] is the objective,” Bennett said. “It all comes down to Baldy. And staying out of trouble the other days.”
I sat down with Bennett in Sacramento to discuss his season thus far, the riders he expects to contend for victory in California, and Marcel Kittel’s decision to step away from the sport.
CT: You’re back at the Amgen Tour of California, a race you won two years ago. Last year you raced the Giro, and finished eighth. Why did you come back to California this year?
GB: First of all, I just love the race. I’ve been here four or five times. It’s always been good to me, such good memories. And it’s not just the Tour of California. It’s not just this one week. It’s the whole process.
I like to come out early, I’ve been in Boulder for a month. I’m here with my girlfriend. It’s like I’m on holiday. It sets you up well. You can be at altitude without feeling like you’re at altitude. It’s a great chance for me to get a result. It was the first race I’ve won. It was the last race I’ve won. It was the only race I’ve won.
The Giro is a special race, but it just doesn’t particularly suit me. It’s a lot of time trials, a lot of transition stages, bad weather … not that that’s a major issue but it’s not that enjoyable. Doing California allows me to do the Tour well, it allows me to do the Vuelta, it opens more doors. It’s just a program I prefer.
CT: Is it fair to say you’re here at this race to win it?
GB: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve also prepared for it with the Tour in mind. That means we haven’t done any of the high-intensity stuff. Just one session where I’ve gone what you would consider a hard effort — that was down at sea level, down in Santa Rosa. I did a lot of heavy lifting in Boulder, a lot of Ks, a lot of riding up hills — strength work. I pretty much made my training program around the weather, and just rode a lot of good, hard riding, but never went into the intensity.
That’s because it’s kind of at a niggly time to be really good, and then be good at the Tour. With that said, I’ve definitely done enough to be in a good place and to be a contender. And now that I’m here, it’s 100% focus on trying to win the race, to see if I’m good enough.
CT: When you talk about being good at the Tour, what will your role be in July? With Roglic and Kruijswijk on the Tour squad, has your role been defined?
GB: I’ll be getting bottles. Those two will ride for GC at the Tour. Obviously that depends on how Roglic comes out of the Giro, but that guy … nothing stops him. Last year in the Giro I was eighth, and those boys were fourth and fifth at the Tour, so I’ve drawn the third rung on that ladder. At the Tour I’ll be a helper, and at the Vuelta I’ll ride for GC.
CT: Looking at your results so far this season, sixth overall at Paris-Nice was your best finish. Was that also your best race?
GB: It’s been a weird year actually. Tour Down Under was strange. I had a great day one day, and then just completely shat out on the last day, the Willunga stage. I didn’t really give it much thought, I didn’t really feel like I’d put the effort in for Down Under, and it was just a nice cruise. And then I went home and trained super hard for Paris-Nice.
I did a lot of Ks, and again not a lot of intensity. And it went well — I survived the crosswinds and did pretty well in the mountains. Didn’t have a great time trial, but sixth is alright.
And then the big goal, it was all building towards Pais Vasco. And I just got so, so cold one day. It such a silly thing to say — how do you get cold, you have all the rain gear? — but we had a bit of a clothing mix up and I ended up rocking the wrong gear, four hours just cramped all through my shoulders, all through my neck, everything. It was just the worst.
Got to the last climb, and it was like a kilometre long, and I think I lost a minute, a minute and a half. And that was it. The next day I was completely empty, and it was race over. That shows how volatile it can be, or how fragile we are. One thing goes wrong and that’s it. That was Pais Vasco, the big goal of the spring, gone. It was super disappointing, actually.
That back-footed me so bad. I was physically pretty smoked for a while after that. So it was good to go to Boulder and just shut it down, reset, go and have some wine, and get inside the bubble. We stay with an awesome family there, and do normal life a bit. There are kids coming and going, dogs, cats, it’s cool to go back into a normal reality for a while, and then start riding again, and put the work in there.
You just have to forget about it, what can you do? You build your spring around Pais Vasco, it didn’t work out, and you can’t get too upset because you can’t get it back. I try not to even acknowledge that it was shit. Whenever I think about it, it’s not good memories, so I just choose to ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen.
CT: When you won the Amgen Tour of California, you essentially won on the strength of your time trial. This year, there is no time trial.
GB: Yeah, that makes things a lot harder. My time trial has been strange. I’ve had two top-10 time trials at the WorldTour, and then I’ve had some shockers. I’ve sort of 50/50 in the past two years between really good and really shit. Certainly an altitude time trial suits me down to the ground.
I did win it in the TT, in a way. I was fourth in the TT, and without it, it makes it a lot harder. It makes it a lot more a Tour Down Under kind of race, where guys are going for sprint bonuses. Okay, we’ve got 8km at 9% [on Mount Baldy] so it is a little bit different, but there still could be four or five guys going to the line on Baldy.
And then we’re separated by a handful of seconds and there’s time bonuses, and there’s these crazy finishes like into Morro Bay, where there’s a little kicker and if you’re 10 wheels back you lose five seconds. It could be the kid of race where it doesn’t suit me as well as last time, but maybe for the fans, for the people who really understand what’s going on in terms of sprint points and the dangers of losing time in finals, it could be a more exciting race.
CT: Who do you see as the big GC favorites?
GB: Obviously Richie [Porte]. [Rigoberto] Uran. [Tadej] Pogacar, I think he could be really hard to beat.
CT: What about Rohan Dennis?
GB: If there’s a TT, Rohan for sure. Without a TT it will be hard. But don’t write him off. Tejay [van Garderen]. [Max] Schachmann. [Felix] Grosschartner, he was just fifth at Romandie. There’s a pretty awesome field here, actually. But I think Pogacar, Uran, Richie are the big three guys that are the likely podium.
CT: Pogacar is a big talent, eh?
GB: Really young, and really good.
CT: What did you make of the news of Marcel Kittel breaking his contract with Katusha-Alpecin?
Yeah, I just read that. He must be going through some stuff. You never know what … you try and put yourself in someone’s shoes like that. A good friend of mine, Jesse Sergent, he had a great contract with Ag2r and halfway through, he decided to shut it down. From that moment, he said shut it down, I’m going back to New Zealand. And a lot people were like ‘why did he not take another eight months and get the salary?’ But for me, I respected his decision so much because he was just like, ‘No, not for me. My heart is not into it. I’m going to stop and do something I want to do, something my wife wants to do.’ It didn’t screw the team around. I had a lot of respect for that decision.
It’s kind of the same with Kittel. If he’s not feeling it, and they are paying him a lot of money, and he’s not happy … good on him. I do feel for him, but I don’t think that’s the end of him. I don’t know him personally all that well, I mean I’ve had a few beers with him now and then, and he seems like a super nice guy. But there’s obviously a lot more than pedalling a bike that makes you walk away from it.
It can’t feel that good to be underperforming for your paycheck. He probably wouldn’t feel that bad about it if he was making 50 grand a year, and then you’d say, ‘well, I’m allowed to have a few bad races.’ But if you have a guy bearing down on you with the argument, ‘we’re paying you to be good,’ that doesn’t help the situation at all. That wouldn’t be a great tactic from the bosses, but there’s always that undercurrent.
It’s a situation I can’t say I’ve had any experience with, and I’m sure everyone will speculate, but in the end it’s up to him, and I hope he’s done what’s good for him. Anyone who gets after him about it, I’m sure they’ve never been a pro cyclist.
CT: Do you watch Game of Thrones? I’m looking for a prediction.
GB: I do, but you know what I’ve done? Caitlin hadn’t seen it, she is one of those 2% of people that had never watched Game of Thrones. The new season was about to come out, and she decided she would start at the beginning. So now I have started at the beginning with her, and I haven’t seen any of the episodes from the final season.
CT: Okay, well then I’ll hold off on the question I was about to ask you. I have to say, that’s true love, to go back and watch all seven seasons while missing the new episodes. I don’t know if I could do that. I hope she knows what you’re sacrificing for her.
GB: I’m going to make her read this. She just thinks I enjoyed it the first time, I’m going to enjoy it the second time.
CT: That might be true if you had been able to watch all the way through the final season, and then went back and started it again from the beginning.
GB: It’s been punishing, every time she would say, ‘Oh, I really like this character,’ and I would know he was about to get an axe through the head.