There are many roads to becoming a pro cyclist, but when you are born in Nelson, New Zealand, where we are raised on a steady diet of rugby and milking cows, and at times even doubt the existence of Europe, the road becomes longer, with multiple off-camber hairpins thrown in.
For me, it started on the mountain bike. After falling in love with the roads of Italy during a soul-searching ride following a terrible junior MTB World Championships, I decided that, actually, I just wanted to come live in Europe and climb these Alps.
It’s a big jump from an epiphany to a reality and it started with a call to former MTB pro Tim Vincent. He knew I could pedal on the local scene and he wrangled me a ride with a Swiss amateur team for 2009. My departure date grew closer, and with it my fears of leaving for the other side of the world as a lone wolf to become pro.
Just before I left, I got a call from Tim, who told me that the whole team thing had actually fallen through, but there was a guy who said he would put me up and had a small squad I could race for. I had already told too many people I was off to Europe to be a pro cyclist, so I couldn’t back out.
I got on the plane and landed in a very snowy Zurich. I remember vividly the car drive to Sursee with a friend of Tim’s who filled me in on a few details.
The first thing was that there wasn’t actually a race team, just a bike shop that some guys worked in and wore the kit. Secondly, the guy I was living with didn’t speak a word of English. Thirdly, he had been known to have relationships with younger men.
We talk about the deep end, but this was the Pacific Ocean for me. In the end, it all worked out and he was a genuinely nice guy, just trying to help. I eventually won a big Div 2 race and ended up on an amateur team with a few Kiwis, three of us living in a room the size of my current spare bathroom: no internet, no money, but winning a lot of races and learning how to survive in the modern jungle. I look back fondly on that time, although I’d never want to do it again.
Fast forward nearly ten years and I’m facing far different challenges now. I’ve come off the Giro and am navigating a strange limbo. For the last six months, I haven’t thought about much else apart from Italy. Every race was only intended as a build up for the Giro. Every period between races is spent sitting up on a desolate mountain and then, boom, it’s over.
I crawled home to Rome in eighth and spent the next days on antibiotics and completely empty. It was time to switch off from cycling for a few weeks – go out with my mates, spend time with my girlfriend – but still in the back of my mind, it keeps gnawing away. It should have been better. It wasn’t a disaster. It just wasn’t what I wanted it to be.
You don’t have the full comedown straight away. It’s like the idea of Friday evening versus Sunday evening when you work a 9-to-5. Finishing the Giro is Friday: just knocked off work, the weekend starts here. Two or three weeks later, the party’s over. Start thinking about work. About the Vuelta. But you’re still tired.
It’s Sunday evening in my world.
Now I’m thinking about throwing a leg back over the bike, but currently directing most of my focus on the biggest obstacle in my career, the dreaded side-stitch. We thought it was cured after my anterior cruciate ligament was dissected last December. For the first time in eight years, I had a few months without the stitch. I was a new man, but after Tirreno-Adriatico, it returned, and now we are scratching our heads a little.
Bike racing is hard enough without feeling like you are getting knifed when you ride up a hill fast. It probably affects more in my life than just my power output, but I’m hoping once it has gone, the monkey can come out of the sleeve and I only have to think about pedalling.
Peace and stop littering.
George Bennett will be appearing at the Rouleur Classic on Thursday November 1