Tour de France 2020: Kiwi George Bennett forsakes personal glory for Jumbo-Visma team

He's enjoyed his moment in the spotlight, but now George Bennett must return to the peloton, when the 107th Tour de France leaves Nice on Saturday (NZ time).

The Kiwi cyclist captured hearts in Italy last week, when he stole victory at Gran Piemonte over a hilly 187km and then fell agonisingly short at Giro di Lombardia - one of cycling's most prestigious one-day events - three days later.

Part of a late breakaway, Bennett elected to force the issue against Danish world No.2 Jakob Fuglsang - and lost. 

Nevertheless, those performances provided a timely reminder of his ability against some of the sport's best racers.

"It was definitely a good week to build your confidence heading into the Tour," Bennett tells Newshub. "It was pretty special to get my first win on Wednesday and then one of the five 'monuments' of cycling…

"You go there to win and you're in a position to win, but finish second... there were really mixed emotions.

"On one hand, I was just gutted after the race, but I've also looked back on it already and know it was a good ride - I have to be happy about it."

Now the plucky Nelsonian faces a completely different challenge, putting his own personal aspirations aside to help his star-studded Jumbo-Visma team seize top billing on the sports' biggest stage.

The Dutch-based factory outfit has assembled a squad capable of toppling the all-conquering Team Ineos juggernaut (formerly Team Sky) that has captured the Tour de France crown for seven of the last eight years.

For Bennett, that means becoming just another spoke in the wheel, playing a completely subservient role to his designated team leaders in their quest for the yellow jersey.

"In other teams, I'd be a leader and trying to go for an overall win, but we've brought together eight of the best riders in the world," he explains. "It's crazy to think we're all together on the same team and that means I'm on helping duty.

"I have no personal ambition for the tour and the team has been very clear that there's zero chance of going for individual results - I'm just there to help.

Jumbo-Visma celebrate their victory at the 2019 Tour de France team time trial stage
Jumbo-Visma celebrate their victory at the 2019 Tour de France team time trial stage, George Bennett fourth from right. Photo credit: Getty

"It's a project that we've talked a lot about and I'm pretty excited to be on a team that has a real chance to win the Tour de France."

That kind of self-sacrificing attitude has made Kiwi athletes so valuable across all professional sporting codes and Jumbo-Visma have stumbled on a valuable role player in Bennett.

But that approach has undoubtedly cost him dearly in the past.

Jumbo dominated the early stages of last year's tour, winning the team time trial on stage two, and nine days through, Bennett was best-placed individual in fourth. 

But during Stage 10 - a seemingly innocuous, flat 217km journey - a "massive communication cock-up" saw him mistakenly drop back to collect water bottles for his teammates, just as crosswinds split the field.

Bennett lost 10 minutes on the leaders and plummeted to 27th in general classification, betrayed by his team-first mentality.

Over the past five years, Bennett has established himself as New Zealand's greatest-ever performer across cycling's three most important races - Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España. His eighth at the 2018 Giro was the best Kiwi finish on a 'Grand Tour', beating his 10th in Spain two years before.

But the French event continues to defy him. 

After a promising 2016 debut, where he finished seventh on a mountain stage regarded as the toughest that year, he sat ninth overall after 12 stages the following year, but was forced to withdraw soon after with gastroenteritis.

Not usually regarded as a time-trial exponent, but a renowned climber, Bennett's best chance of stealing a stage this time round may come on the penultimate day, where the individual race against the clock will be contested over a steep mountain course.

But as Team Jumbo build in strength, Bennett's opportunities to excel diminish.

Their hopes are currently pinned on the world's top-ranked road cyclist - Slovenian Primož Roglič - along with new recruit Tom Dumoulin, past winner of the Giro d'Italia and runner-up on the 2018 Tour.

Also ahead of Bennett in the pecking order is Belgian cyclocross legend Wout Van Aert, arguably the form rider right now, with top-drawer victories at Milano-San Remo and Strade Bianche.

Even with all this talent at their disposal, Jumbo-Visma will not be at full strength. Speedster Dylan Groenewegen - winner of four Tour de France sprint stages - is still suffering the physical (broken collarbone), emotional and judicial consequences of a spectacular crash during the Tour of Poland, when he nudged an opponent off the finishing straight. 

Earlier this month, Roglic and Steven Kruijswijk - third in Tour de France 2019 - both spilled out of Critérium du Dauphiné. Roglič remains a touch-and-go proposition, but Kruijswijk is definitely out with a shoulder injury. 

Those mishaps just demonstrate the volatility within the churning mass of bodies and bikes, and the importance of having skilled 'domestiques' to protect team leaders against the unexpected.

"There's no scope to go for your own results," says Bennett. "We saw in France how quickly things can change, with Stevie dislocating his shoulder and Roglic crashing, so you need to be there at all times.

"If you're in a team that's really trying to win the thing, it's all hands on deck at all times."

Team Ineos have dropped past Tour winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, but still boast defending champion Egan Bernal of Columbia and 2019 Giro winner Richard Carapaz at their helm.

George Bennett leads the field at Giro di Lombardia
George Bennett leads the field at Giro di Lombardia. Photo credit: Getty

"Everyone is putting it down to a Jumbo-Visma and Ineos battle," says Bennett. "We went head to head at the Tour de l'Ain and we were significantly better, and again at the Dauphiné, but you'd be a fool to write off Ineos.

"We know they'll come out a far better team in France and the last thing we want to do is fall into a false sense of security that we've got them wrapped up.

"And we can't just put it down to a two-horse race - we've got to watch out for so many guys like Pinot, Buchmann, Pogačar… they can all be major problems."

But perhaps Team Jumbo's greatest challenge will come from the course itself - 3470km over 21 stages, with potential disaster lurking around even corner.

Bennett has had his own recent scrape with calamity. As his breakaway hurtled down a winding decline at Lombardia, metres behind him, Belgian Remco Evenepoel struck a bridge and catapulted headfirst into the ravine below.

"It just sounds like Remco was under the pump a little bit on the downhill, taking risks to come back, and got caught out on that corner," reflects Bennett. "Man, it's a long way down when you go off that bridge at 60km/h.

"I'm really happy to hear that he's more or less OK - a broken pelvis and bruised lung - compared to what could have been.

"Crashing is part of cycling - it's the worst part of cycling."

Team Jumbo-Visma

George Bennett - New Zealand

Born April 7, 1990 (30)

Eighth in 2018 Giro d'Italia

10th in 2016 Vuelta a España

2017 Tour of California winner

2020 Gran Piemonte winner

2020 Giro di Lombardia runner-up

Bennett has contested three previous Tours de France, with a high finish of 24th, and his eighth in Italy two years ago represents the highest placing by a Kiwi at a Grand Tour.

He has shown his individual ability in recent weeks, with victory over some of the world's top riders at Gran Piemonte and then a gutsy second placing at Lombardia - one of cycling's five prestigious 'monuments' - three days later.

Tom Dumoulin & Sepp Kuss at the Critérium du Dauphiné
Tom Dumoulin & Sepp Kuss at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Photo credit: Getty

Tom Dumoulin - Netherlands

Born November 11, 1990 (29)

2017 world time trial champion

2016 Olympic time trial silver medalist

2018 Tour de France runner-up - three stage wins (2016, 18)

2017 Giro d'Italia winner (second 2018) - four stage wins (2016-18)

2015 Sixth at Vuelta a España - two stage wins  (2015)

New to Jumbo-Visma, Dumolin has previously starred for Team Sunweb, highlighted by his Grand Tour victory in Italy three years ago. He was famously forced to take a comfort stop on stage 16, losing a minute to his nearest challengers, and needed a clutch performance in the individual time trial to eventually secure general classification honours. 

Another former world time trial champion, he has won against the clock in all three Grand Tours.

Robert Gesink - Netherlands

Born May 31, 1986 (34)

Fourth in 2010 Tour de France (sixth 2015)

Sixth in 2009, 12 Vuelta a España - one stage win (2016)

2011 Tour of Oman winner

2012 Tour of California winner

The resident team veteran turned professional 15 years ago, joining Jumbo-Visma in 2015, and has compiled a long list of impressive results across the world, without quite achieving a career-defining victory.

These days, he serves as domestique to Jumbo's higher-ranked contenders.  

Amund Grøndahl Jansen - Norway

Born February 11, 1994 (26)

2016 ZLM Roompot Tour winner

2016 Tour de Gironde winner

2019 Danish road race champion

If the water bottles need filling, Jansen will undoubtedly be dispatched to the team car for fresh 'bidons' this time.

Sepp Kuss - United States

Born September 13 1994 (25)

Vuelta a España - one stage win (2019)

2018 Tour of Utah winner

A relative unknown on the Jumbo team, Kuss has shown his bright talent on rare occasions. His only Grand Tour stage win came in Spain last year, when he helped Roglič to overall victory, but was part of a stage 15 breakaway and attacked with 7km remaining to win by 39s.

When Roglič crashed out of this year's Critérium du Dauphiné, Kuss was set loose on the final day and rode away from the field on a tough uphill finish.

Tony Martin - Germany

Born April 23, 1985 (35)

2011-13, 16 world time trial champion

2012 Olympic time trial silver medalist

Tour de France - five stage wins (2011, 13-15)

Vuelta a España - two stage wins (2011, 14)

2012-14 Tour of Belgium winner

2011, 12 Tour of Beijing winner

2011, 13 Volta ao Algarve winner

2011 Paris-Nice winner

Another seasoned campaigner, Martin has built a reputation as a time-trial specialist, including four world titles and four Grand Tour stage wins. 

His only other stage success came at the 2015 Tour de France, where he broke away late on the fourth day to snatch the yellow jersey, but crashed two stages later and had to withdraw with a broken collarbone, while still leading.  

Primoz Roglic crashes during Critérium du Dauphiné
Primož Roglič crashes during Critérium du Dauphiné. Photo credit: Getty

Primož Roglič - Slovenia

Born October 29, 1989 (30)

Fourth in 2018 Tour de France - two stage wins (2017, 18)

2019 Vuelta a España winner - one stage win (2019)

Third in 2019 Giro d'Italia - three stage wins (2016,19)

2018, 19 Tour de Romandie winner

2015, 18 Tour of Slovenia winner

In 2017, Roglic became the first Slovenian to win a stage of the Tour de France and held a podium position the following year, before four-time champion Chris Froome edged ahead of him in the final individual time trial.

The world No.1 was well placed to win this month's Critérium du Dauphiné - one of the big lead-up races to the Tour - but crashed on the penultimate day and could not make the start-line for the final stage.

Wout Van Aert - Belgium

Born September 15, 1994 (25)

Tour de France - one stage win (2019)

2016-18 cyclocross world champion 

A relative newcomer to the UCI road circuit, Van Aert has built a formidable record in the European discipline of cyclocross - essentially cross-country racing on a road bike.

Last year, he showed flashes of brilliance, with a Belgian time trial title, points victory at Critérium du Dauphiné and an individual stage win at the Tour de France. He has been one of the form riders of 2020, capturing two big one-day victories at Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche.