George Bennett: “The difference between Pogačar and Roglič is often the difference between their helpers"

One of the biggest transfers of the off-season saw George Bennett move from Jumbo-Visma to fierce rivals UAE Team Emirates. We caught up with the 31-year-old to talk new training ideas, new gear and new ambitions…

After seven seasons at Jumbo-Visma, New Zealander George Bennett will spend the next two seasons in the red, white and black livery of UAE Team Emirates. Bennett, who was the 2017 Tour of California champion but is now regarded as a super-domestique (Primoz Roglic’s man in the mountains), was one of eight new riders brought in by the Emirates outfit for 2022, alongside the likes of Movistar’s Marc Soler and QuickStep’s Joao Almeida.

It’s thanks to these new signings that the team’s strength in-depth is staggering. As is their budget – a reported 35-million in 2021. Only Ineos-Grenadiers, at 50-million, have such deep back pockets. But, says Bennett, the desire to move came down to seeking peak performance rather than chasing the dirham. Here, over the modern-day face-to-face that is Zoom, Bennett reveals how he’s settled in and his goals for 2022.

You’re down in New Zealand currently, so how much time have you spent with your new team so far?

I’ve had a week with them in the UAE but that’s been it. And that included very little bike work – it was more admin, that sort of thing. I’m working with a new trainer now – John Wakefield. He’s based in Girona, which is handy for me as that’s where I live during the season. We’ve been catching up a lot online.

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How important is the rider-coach relationship?

Huge and it’s a big thing to change trainers. John has a whole new way of approaching stuff, and it transpires there are many ways to skin a cat when it comes to being a good cyclist.

At Jumbo-Visma, the style changed over the years. By the end we were doing a fair bit of riding two minutes on, two minutes off but still high volume. It was a blanket approach; in other words, it worked for Primoz [Roglic], it worked for Wout [van Aert], so it’ll work for everyone.Bennett at the Tour of Britain (Image: SWPix)

Related: Tadej Pogačar, from Slovenian village unicyclist to Tour de France Champion

Here – so far anyway – it’s been more specific. I’ve been tested twice in the Girona sport-science labs and been analysed to the hilt. And not just VO2max. That’s important. At Jumbo, I undertook numerous VO2 tests and came out in the 90s. But VO2’s overrated as there’s a huge mismatch between VO2 and cycling performance. From the tests I’ve undertaken with UAE, I can see where I fall off the cliff physiologically. 

No matter what your VO2 is, it’s what shape you arrive at the last climb; it’s all about repeatability and efficiency. UAE’s really dialled into the numbers. They can see where I suffer; by digging into my training file, we can see how many thousand kilojoules before I drop off. They take into account my torque readings, too. They’ve really looked under my hood and seen what’s working and what isn’t. 

How has this manifested itself in training load?

There are two clear differences so far – fewer hours and higher intensity. Often at this stage I might be doing 30-hour weeks, which are big weeks. Now, it’s not even close. Last week I did 17 hours, the week before 20 hours. Between John and myself, we’re still pinning down my optimal load and that’ll take a little time. But the high-intensity stuff makes sense. Look at racing and how it’s changed. It feels like average power is cranking up each season, as last year people were attacking with 60km to go and everyone was on their knees to the finish. Ultimately, though, we’ll see at the races how this shift in training plays out. I’m enjoying the change; that said, I enjoyed working with my former coach [at Jumbo-Visma, Mathieu Hejboer]. I worked with him for seven years and he helped me improve, but I wanted to try new stuff. 

Where are you based at the moment and what are the routes like?

I’m based in Nelson, which is at the top of the South Island. We have a long 30-minute climb and a couple of shorter ones, but the problem is logistically tying them together as the long climb is an hour-and-a-half away. So, I might drive a little bit as you might not want a five-hour ride with all those intervals, especially now as I’m not doing more than three-and-a-half hours at a time. If the time comes for longer rides of six to seven hours, that’s when things can become a little tedious in New Zealand as there aren’t that many branches of roads. It’s different in Girona and Andorra. You look forward to those rides. They’re adventures. 

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Image: Benedict Campbell

What about indoor training? 

No, thank you. Okay, I rode indoors briefly when I returned to this country and entered isolation. But, to be honest, after that I was ready to throw the bloody trainer through the window and not look at it again. I try to avoid indoor training whenever possible.

Do you complement riding with gym work?

I do now. I’ve gone from zero gym to two or three times a week. In fact, during the early days of the off-season I’d be in the gym every day. Now it’s down to twice a week, though it’ll be less in the build-up to my first race of the year at the UAE Tour [20-26 February].

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And it’s not simply been high-repetition stuff for conditioning. It’s been about growing bigger, stronger legs, so lots of leg press. It’s about maximal damage exercises – about trying to rip my muscles up and grow them. Then again, I haven’t managed to add much muscle yet. I suspect I’m not that way inclined. But it’s a balancing act as I’m looking to build muscle while stripping fat built up in the break after the 2021 season. You’re not going to gain muscle if you’re calorie-negative. It’s tricky.

On your website it says you’re 58kg. Does that change much as the season rolls on?

It fluctuates massively. When I jumped back on the bike after the break, I was 5kg heavier, much of that down to drinking beer with my mates and eating bad food. But key when looking to lose that weight is to bring things down slowly. You don’t want to crash diet and put yourself in a hole. That’s where a lot of riders make mistakes.

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Now, I’ll watch my food but our nutritionist, Gorka [Prieto-Bellver], has done an awesome job of helping me sort my nutrition plan. And the added weight was normal. Since being back in New Zealand, we’ve had Christmas, time with my family, three weddings… A lot of stuff going on. I’m conscientious but weighing every meal? I wouldn’t leave the house; life would be trash. I’ll save that when prepping for the Tour or at an altitude camp. Bennett at the Toyko 2020 Olympics (Image: Alex Broadway/SWpix)

A new team means new gear. To the envy of many, you’re now riding a Colnago dressed with Campagnolo. How’s the equipment acclimatisation process been?

It’s actually been a challenge as it’s not like at Jumbo-Visma where we simply went from Bianchi to Cervelo. Here, I have new pedals, new shoes, new seat, new groupset, new frame, new handlebars… Everything feels different. That’s why you just have to throw yourself at it for a week and then think about adjusting this, that and the other. Thankfully, I’m not like some guys I know who are neurotic about position. They change set-ups all the time – a millimetre here, a millimetre there. They go to races and have Allen keys in their pockets. 

The fact John [Wakefield, coach] is a qualified bike-fitter helps. I spent a lot of time in the lab with him doing all the saddle mapping, making sure everything was right, albeit mainly on the time-trial (TT) bike. We had a real battle with that one – saddle height and stuff – but it’s getting there. Once we sorted a saddle that didn’t give me a vasectomy, I was a lot happier. Down the line, we’ll look at customised bars and a few other interesting TT tech bits, so it’s not nailed yet but it’ll get there.

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And it’s taken a bit of time to get used to Campagnolo as I’ve ridden Shimano for most of my career. I knew what to do if my Di2 froze. And when something breaks, the bike shop were able to sort a shifter for me easy enough. So, I’m learning to tune my Super Record but it takes a while for mechanics to learn how to sort a problem, let alone a guy on the side of the road in New Zealand having a meltdown. Still, riding a Colnago equipped with Campag… how cool is that.Image: Benedict Campbell

What are your race plans for 2022?

After the UAE Tour I’m back home in Andorra for three weeks before the Volta a Catalunya [21-27 March] and then it’s almost straight into the Tour of the Basque Country [3-8 April]. From there, I’ll take on the Ardennes classics [Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege] for the first time, which I’m excited about. It’s then onto the [Critérium du] Dauphine [5-12 June]. After, hopefully it’s the Tour de France [1-24 July]. It’s never locked in this early but I’ll throw my hat into the ring. As for the end of the year, we have a lot of stuff pencilled in but you can take that with a pinch of salt in February.

Finally, you’ve left Rog to hook up with Pog. How do the two compare?

I haven’t ridden with Tadej yet but I’ve ridden against him, of course, many times. I’m looking forward to not having to chase him down. He’ll be at the UAE Tour, so I’ll get to know him more there in what is an important race for us. It’s a privilege shifting between the two best riders in the world when it comes to GC. Mind you, the difference between them is often the difference between the helpers, so I have an important role. I’d say Jumbo-Visma’s a little weaker now and UAE a little stronger. As a cycling fan, I’m looking forward to the battle.

Cover image: Benedict Campbell

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