Cycling: Kiwi George Bennett riding for redemption in season-opening Tour Down Under amid Olympics uncertainty

After a "shit" couple of years, Kiwi cyclist George Bennett enters 2024 with slate wiped squeaky clean and another full calendar of racing readymade for redemption. 

Bennett's past two seasons have been plagued by illness and injury, which have conspired to throw his meticulously planned calendar into chaos. Preparation time - or lack thereof - between events became the biggest sacrifice, leaving him chasing the proverbial peloton and over-racing to compensate. 

In 2022, his UAE Tour was derailed by sickness, before a promising start to the Tour de France - where he helped pace UAE Team Emirates teammate and defending champion Tadej Pogacar to the overall lead with a superb support ride through the mountains of the Puy de Dôme - was curtailed by COVID-19. 

Last year, injury forced Bennett to withdraw from the Tour de Suisse and the domino effect of those tough times culminated with UAE Team Emirates choosing not to retain him on their roster.  

"I was just massively over-raced and just never got going," Bennett told Newshub. "I didn't have any sort of structure to my programme, didn't have any sort of clear goals, didn't have any time to go out and train, which was really important for me." 

"That's all changed this year, with what's laid out ahead of me. I'm pretty excited to have that time to do a proper build-up, get back into things and go to these key races that suit me with a proper build-up in the legs." 

George Bennett in action for UAE Team Emirates last year.
George Bennett in action for UAE Team Emirates last year. Photo credit: Getty Images

After signing on with Israel-Premier Tech, Bennett will roll into the new year with a new team and a golden chance to make a positive first impression at the Tour Down Under, which starts at Adelaide on Tuesday. 

The biggest cycling road race in the southern hemisphere has always been a sentimental favourite for the Nelsonian. After racing relentlessly across Europe, Bennett enjoys the homecoming of sorts, where friends and whanau are offered a rare opportunity to see him in action firsthand. 

Beyond the personal appeal, the tour also shapes as critical to his team's hopes of re-establishing themselves on the UCI World Tour, after being relegated at the conclusion of the three-year qualification cycle in 2022. 

The relatively flat South Australian terrain isn't ideally suited to Bennett's climbing strengths, but teammate and compatriot Corbin Strong - who is classed as a 'puncheur', specialising in rolling terrain with short, steep climbs - shapes as a prime candidate for Israel-Premier Tech to build their offensive around. 

"We've put a lot of effort into this," said Bennett. "We've got a really good team here.  

"It's really important for us. We're in a bit of a points battle to come back to the world tour.  

"You need to hit the ground running for that, so it's a big priority event for us.  

"Personally, it's one of my favourite ways to start. I think it's the closest thing I'll get to a home race.  

"A lot of Kiwis make the trip over, Aussies are here. It feels very antipodean, so it's really good. 

"It's not necessarily the best kind of course, for me - it's sort of shorter hills, things like that. I'm more around for the big Alps and things like that in Europe. 

George Bennett.
George Bennett. Photo credit: Getty Images

"I'll still give it a crack and whether that's going for a result myself depends on how the race unfolds. 

"[Strong] is looking really, really good, and he's a specialist in the sort of short, punchy stuff and pretty fast in the sprints, so we've got a few options." 

Strong is one of the ingredients that give Israel Premier Tech a distinctly Kiwi flavour. Bennett's close friend and former NZ pro rider Sam Bewley is a team director, and the familiar closeknit family vibe among the squad, Bennett says, was one of the main drawcards in his signing. 

Another was the team's newfound commitment to advancement in training technology, which came as a byproduct of their relegation, which Bennett believes may have been a blessing in disguise and is already paying significant dividends. 

"The main drive for me is that you can see what they're doing in terms of science, in terms of technology and equipment," he explained. "How they're pushing the envelope on everything.  

"Being relegated a few years ago was probably one of the best things that could have happened for this team. It's just sparked this whole new drive for them to turn over every stone and this huge push for science, and I think it's really starting to pay off.  

"Last year, they had quite a good year, climbing up the ranks really well. The team put together for this year is really good. 

"It's definitely a team on the up." 

Bennett, 33, hopes to capitalise on those resources to ensure his body can reverse the trend of two testing years and endure the rigours of a busy full calendar of racing, but whether that calendar includes remaining the Paris Olympics is yet to be determined. 

As much as he relishes wearing the fern on sport's biggest stage, Bennett's priorities lie firmly with cycling's own pinnacle events, namely the Tour de France and La Vuelta a Espana. 

The iconic French race finishes just a fortnight before the Olympic event near Paris. Two weeks after that, comes Spain's famed Vuelta. 

George Bennett competes at the Tokyo Olympics.
George Bennett competes at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo credit: Getty Images

With professional obligations at the forefront, he's unsure whether he'll remain in the country to don the black and white lycra for the third time. 

He represented New Zealand at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, both of which brought forgettable results, coming in 33rd amid brutal conditions in Brazil and 26th in Japan. 

Another ill-suited course has Bennett believing there may be better horses to fill the two-man NZ contingent - not that he's making any assumptions when it comes to selection. 

"I'm unsure," he said. "It could work out really well during the tour and then into the Olympics as a good preparation, but it won't be something that I would miss the Tour de France for and then build up specifically for that. 

"I think we have some guys that potentially would be better than me, if they're riding really well. Nothing is guaranteed, there's only two spots and we have a lot of really good riders.  

"Obviously, if it was a hilly course, I'd be feeling pretty confident about my chances, but it's a flat, punchy course.  

"If Paddy [Bevin] is riding really well, he's pretty good on that stuff. Corbin's obviously really good, so is Finn Fisher-Black.  

"We've got a bunch of guys that can be really good. I'm not thinking about it too much at this stage, to be honest.  

"I've done a couple of Olympics now and it's really nice, but I definitely don't need to do the Olympics just to do the Olympics.  

"I would do the Olympics if I had a chance of doing something good at the Olympics and it's going to help me with the rest of my season as well." 

As Bennett describes it, there's no shortage of chances for revenge in the world of cycling and there - quite literally - much larger mountains to conquer. 

"Cycling is one of those sports where the Olympics is big, but give me a Tour de France stage win or give me a Tour de France result overall any day. There's so many bigger races in the Olympics.  

"The Olympics is special for me, because New Zealanders know and love the Olympics. In the cycling world, it's great, it's awesome, but if you win the world championship, probably it's a bigger result, you know." 

The more immediate task at hand lies in Australia, with a six-stage contest in temperatures threatening 40 degrees Celsius through picturesque South Australia, beginning at Tanunda and ending almost 700km later atop Mt Lofty. 

Spending 10 months a year operating out of his Andorra and competing across Europe doesn't afford much room for quality whanau time and - with his cup replenished, after a Christmas break in sunny Golden Bay - Bennett insists he's recharged and ready to stamp his mark on debut with his new team. 

"I'd hazard saying the podium as where we sort of probably have our sights on. I think that that would be a really successful week  

"If I can be good, and on the level to either be getting those results or making sure that I can put the guys in the place to do that, and just be at the front of the race again, [that would be a success].  

"It's not a specialist race for me, it's quite a niche event with sprint bonuses. I think the longest climb is going to be about six-and-a-half minutes, but if you're strong enough, you can still be up there and it's still going to be a pretty hard week."