‘My power is better than ever’ - George Bennett on riding for cycling’s superteams and his next chapter with Israel-Premier Tech

The New Zealander talks about what makes the likes of Tadej Pogačar so good and how he’s ready to start taking his own chances again on a new team

There are only a few riders in the world who have been privy to the inner workings of two of cycling’s current most successful Grand Tour winning teams: UAE Team Emirates and Team Visma-Lease a Bike. Thirty-three-year-old George Bennett, who now rides for Israel-Premier Tech has, from the inside, watched the likes of Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard dominate the biggest stage races on the calendar, giving him a unique perspective on what makes these individuals so good. During his seven seasons with the Dutch team, then his subsequent two years with UAE Team Emirates, Bennett argues that, from what he’s seen, there’s simply not much others can do to challenge the current crop of Tour de France winners.

“People always like to give this romantic mystique to riders that are really genetically talented. They say that, this guy, mentally he's a fortress or something like that. It's a myth. It's genetics,” Bennett says, confidently. “It's who's got a massive engine. You could find a rider who works harder than these guys and he’s still not going to be as good. I know some of these GC guys really well and I've had to sit at the table with them and make sure they finish their breakfast because they're so nervous before a race, then they go and become Tour de France champions. You can’t tell me they’re mentally unbreakable, they’re not. They’ve just got unreal genetics. Biology is on their side and that is a real lottery. People want them to be Gods, doing 40 hours a week in the rain. I'm not saying they don't work hard but it's not that the four best riders in the world are the four hardest working riders in the world.”

Bennett argues that the most important thing for riders, regardless of which team they are part of, is finding an environment that they are comfortable in. Additional pressures like sponsor agreements, staff and management decisions are a crucial part of life as a professional, something Bennett says should not be underestimated when it comes to building a rider who is able to contest for victory in a three-week race.

“I think it's just finding what's important to you. Some guys, the most important thing for them is to have a luxury team with the fancy bus and flying business class. And for some people the most important thing is to be riding with your mates or to have a good race schedule,” Bennett explains.The New Zealander attributes a poorly planned race schedule as one of the reasons he couldn’t personally excel as part of UAE Team Emirates over the last two seasons. While he did some solid work for his team’s leaders in various races, Bennett, who finished second in Il Lombardia in 2020, believes he struggled to find his own opportunities in a squad filled with so many superstars.

“What I was really used to before joining UAE was targeting events and going away to train at altitude for them, then being used in that race in a way that worked for me,” Bennett says. “The last few years, it’s been more like: you’re going here, then you’re going there. There’s not as much structure and there’s more last minute changes. My engine can be quite good, but it’s also fragile. I didn’t really handle the load that well from a lot of racing – that’s a weakness of mine, I need to be more robust. It’s something I’m working on.”

UAE Team Emirates’ huge talent pool, with riders like Brandon McNulty, Adam Yates, Juan Ayuso and João Almeida on their roster, means that reliable domestiques like Bennett are in high demand. This led him to finding himself thrown into a huge number of race days at short notice – he wasn’t expected to win them, but was expected to be there at crucial moments to protect his team’s leaders and set them up for victory in the best way possible. 

“It was a good experience and I enjoyed my time there but it wasn’t a sustainable environment, that was pretty clear after I crashed out of the Tour de Suisse last year,” Bennett says.

Crashes and illness have been a recurring theme throughout the last two years of Bennett’s career. He showed signs of promise at the 2022 Tour de France, riding in support of Pogačar, but he was forced to leave the race after the first week when he contracted Covid-19. Before that, he’d missed the majority of the spring due to illness, too. As Bennett mentions, his crash in Switzerland last year meant that he missed selection for UAE Team Emirates’ 2023 Tour de France squad and he found himself at a career crossroads when it came to finding out what was still left for him in cycling. Speaking to reporters after his Tour de Suisse crash, Bennett described professional bike racing as “an absolute dog of a sport”.The contract offer from Israel-Premier Tech at the end of 2023 was a chance for Bennett to rediscover where he belonged in the peloton. He doesn’t shy away from the fact that Israel-Premier Tech is a team that has been criticised in the past for signing riders who are coming to the end of their careers, admitting that that made them hesitant to take a chance on Bennett.

“I think they were wary of: is this another bloke that was quite good and has been shit for two years? This sounds like the kind of thing that we've been in trouble for signing in the past,” Bennett laughs. “But they are also signing young guys. Some teams are only signing young riders and they all ride around like clowns not knowing what’s going on, so you do need some older riders too. And I’m not that old either, I’m only 33!”

This winter, Bennett has already made some changes to his training plan, explaining that he’s going back to training in the ways which worked for him while he was part of Jumbo-Visma a few years ago, working with a new coach who has trained the likes of Richie Porte in the past.

“I'm definitely trying to go back to what was really working for me when I was at the front end of races. Last year, I didn’t really have time to train because of all the race days,” Bennett explains. “I came to this team and said that it was important to me to have these opportunities to prepare for races. They have taken that on board and the schedule they've given me is perfect timing for all the gaps I asked for to go away and train.”

The fruits of Bennett’s hard work have already begun to show during power testing, explaining that his power is “definitely better than it’s ever been”. He adds that he needs to get his weight down ahead of the Grand Tours, but is waiting to implement those changes until closer to some of his key goals in the season.

“I’m pretty happy with the power coming out which is good, because everyone told me it should get worse as you get old,” Bennett says. “I don’t really believe that, I think people just get less motivated, or they have kids or their life changes. I don't think at a biological level, you get worse. Maybe you get a little bit slower with fast twitch muscles in sprints, but there's nothing to suggest you should, at a cellular level, be worse. I think a lot of it is situational or emotional.”

Bennett credits the forward-thinking of Israel-Premier Tech staff in helping ensure that the team is up to date with the latest marginal gains and testing protocols, even staying one step ahead of the aforementioned super-teams that Bennett has ridden for in the past.

“UAE didn’t test anywhere near as much as Jumbo. They just sort of picked up riders off race results, because they had the budget to do that,” Bennett says. “At Israel-Premier Tech, I've stepped into an environment where I've already done a huge amount of tests with special equipment. We’re doing the same, if not more than, Jumbo spec. We have these high-end protocols in place for performance, nutrition, aerodynamics, equipment, training, altitude, everything.”

It’s not just his training that has made Bennett feel as if he’s found a home at his new team. Working with former professional riders and close friends like Sam Bewley and Daryl Impey (two of Israel-Premier Tech’s sports directors) has been crucial to Bennett finding an environment he can thrive in. He also notes that the team actively encourages him to spend time with his family back in New Zealand, a key part of making him a happier person off the bike, which has translated into better performances on it, too.

“For me, I get home to see my family for six weeks a year. It's the most precious time when you go home to see everybody. If you do that period well, I feel like you can store enough emotional energy to get you through the year,” Bennett says.

When it comes to his goals for 2024, Bennett says he’s looking forward to having the opportunity to race in a different style to previous years. While he is used to working as a domestique in key mountain stages, this season should offer him chances to attack and go for stage victories in Grand Tours, something he hasn’t been able to do very often in the past.

“With the emergence of these super-teams, you don’t really need a strong team because they control the race for you. I haven’t had the chance to try these attacks yet, so I’m looking forward to going up the road and seeing if I can do it,” he explains.

Above all, while Bennett may be of the belief that some riders are just fundamentally more naturally talented than others, that doesn’t mean he counts himself out of getting to the very top of the sport again, albeit in a different way than he might have once expected. Despite over a decade in the professional peloton, the Kiwi rider still holds on to enthusiasm and motivation for the sport, something that will undoubtedly serve him well in 2024.

“I look at the options I had on the table for this year and I could have definitely taken the money and gone to a team where I would keep doing what I was doing,” Bennett says. “Instead, I went to a Pro Continental team and put myself in an environment that’s the best for being good again. I think that’s the far more exciting option. I still love the sport and I feel like I could do it for another 10 years. I really enjoy everything, but it’s so much better when you’re good, it’s horrible when you’re bad and you dread racing. When you’re going well, you can’t wait to race. It’s a treat.”

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