A race designed for the sprinters in the scorching heat of South Australia isn’t exactly where you’d expect to find George Bennett.
However, the Tour Down Under in Adelaide, beginning Tuesday, is the latest stop on his cycling journey, one which will hopefully see the top New Zealand rider spend more time on the bike than in bed.
His previous season was one of his best, but also his toughest to date. He shot to prominence after winning the Tour of California in May, becoming the first Kiwi to win a UCI World Tour event. An impressive Tour de France followed, where he duelled with the likes of four-time winner Chris Froome and Spanish icon Alberto Contador.
But it wouldn't last Just as things were looking up, his health came unstuck, and punctured the remainder of his season. Post-viral fatigue was the chief culprit.
"I was like a lab experiment. I was doing blood tests every day, everything you do you just to resist the urge to go and lie down,” he told Newshub.
"I tried to get back on the bike and head to altitude to train for the Vuelta, and after two hours I just found myself sitting at a gas station smashing a few Snickers bars and trying to work out how I was going to get home."
Bennett was forced to withdraw from the Tour, while his attempted comeback at the Vuelta a Espana didn’t go well. He went from climbing with the best guys in the world to struggling to make the time cut.
"I remember getting on the bus actually after about seven stages and I just had a message from my director and it was a screenshot of flights back to Girona with different flight options, so the next day I was at the airport going home,” he said with a laugh.
After "scaring himself shitless" googling the virus, he was fortunate enough to train himself out of it and make a full recovery.
The 27-year-old’s now eyeing up another year on the pro circuit after a brief stint in his hometown of Nelson. It was a rare chance to get away from the pandemonium of a Grand Tour and enjoy a bit of backyard cricket with family.
Post-viral fatigue hasn’t been the only thing he’s had to deal with. He went under the knife late last year to try and fix a nightmare side stitch that’s plagued him for six years.
"It doesn’t seem like something a pro cyclist should get. It’s like fat old men that run after Christmas lunch, they get the side stitch. Every time I run or go really hard on a bike I just get it insanely bad."
He’s hoping median arcuate ligament surgery was the answer, a process that involved separating a ligament that was impinging one of his arteries. He’s anxious to see whether it worked, something he won’t know until he gets up to full speed later in the year.
His calendar for the season is a little different to what everyone expected with one glaring omission – the Tour de France, cycling's undeniable pinnacle.
"It’s a really, really tough decision to make, but I’m just looking ahead to 2019 which is where I really want to go and test myself at the Tour."
It’s a rebuilding year of sorts, but that’s not how Bennett looks at it.
He’ll still be in the thick of it across Europe, racing the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta. The Giro will throw up plenty of challenges, featuring many of the best riders in the world like Dutch star Tom Dumoulin, and a hefty travel schedule, with the race starting in Jerusalem.
“I’m not going into the Giro sort of half speed, I’m really focussed on it, like it’s my last race I’m ever going to do."
While he won’t be in France, riding the Grand Tours in Italy and Spain are just as important. Success in cycling is built around a strong team, and Bennett’s trying to develop his own.
"It’s an individual sport from the outside, but in the race you really need a strong eight guys around you. In the Tour last year we had a lot of guys going for stages and we had the guys helping the sprinters out, and we didn’t really have a man in the mountains helping me out, especially after Robert Gesink broke his back."
Another race missing from his jam-packed schedule is the Commonwealth Games in April. Like most of New Zealand’s best riders, his pro team commitments clash with the Games.
He’s hoping to make up for it by representing New Zealand at the World Champs in Austria. The road race course, arguably the toughest one ever, should suit him perfectly. Around 5000 metres of climbing over 260 kilometres is just the sort of challenge he thrives on.
The sport he loves is also facing a tough ride. Froome’s adverse analytical finding from the Vuelta was another blow to the battered carcass of cycling.
"Sometimes I get absolutely disheartened and want to bloody throw the sport away and go fishing or something for the rest of my life. But when I look at it, I actually think cycling as a sport probably does more than any other sport to clean itself up.
"I have to say where I am all the time, there’s a system I log into to say where I’ve been training and I’m tested all the time.
"Guys taking EPO, that just doesn’t happen. I think that’s why New Zealand cycling has suddenly flourished, because the sport has gotten that much cleaner, and we’ve just had this wave of guys suddenly with the ability to compete because it’s so clean.”
Evidence of New Zealand’s developing cycling strength will be on show over the next few days. There are five kiwis in the field, with Bennett joined by Jack Bauer (Mitchelton-Scott), Alex Frame (Trek-Segafredo), Paddy Bevin (BMC Racing) and Tom Scully (EF Education First-Drapac).
Bennett’s already surprised himself this year, finishing fourth in the road race at the nationals in Napier. The Tour Down Under is another chance to clock up some kilometres in the legs, and get back on the road to success.