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For many pro cyclists, a ride at the Tour de France is an opportunity too big to turn down.
“I love being part of the Tour squad, and in the years ahead, I’ll go back in there and it will be the center point of my season,” Bennett told VeloNews. “But the Olympics is a once in a career opportunity, and the course works for me. It’s hard, and will be very hot, which has always been my strength.”
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Steering away from the Tour is a big sacrifice for the Kiwi climber, and a dent in Jumbo-Visma’s quest to put Primož Roglič into the maillot jaune. But it’s a call that’s more than compensated by the pay-off of the Kiwi being free to take captain’s armband at this month’s Giro d’Italia.
Long confined in the engine room of his Dutch squad, the Giro-Olympics double makes for a dream proposition for 31-year-old Bennett.
“Doing the Giro rather than the Tour offers up some great things for me – an opportunity to get a great result [at the Giro] and a far better run into the Olympics,” Bennett said in a telephone call.
“I can control the build-up and start fresh by choosing the Giro. There’s no way you can do that riding the Tour first.”
For riders from many nations, the Olympics can prove an unwanted distraction – unless there’s a strong chance of glory at the Games, the majority of WorldTour racers prioritize contract-collateral pro results over pulling on a national team jersey. Yet for rugby and cricket-crazed New Zealanders, the Games have an altogether different allure.
In a different meteorological season and distant time zone, the European summer of cycling is as closed as you can get to a different world for sports-mad Kiwis.
“For New Zealanders, the Olympics are way more special than for say a Dutchman,” Bennett said. “In New Zealand, you don’t grow up around cycling, the Tour hardly even registers. But the Olympics, everybody knows them. They’re what you dream of when you’re a kid.”
Many riders are hoping to double up the Tour and the Olympics – a six-day transition between Paris and Tokyo that needs precision planning and rapid acclimatization to the heat and timezone of the Japanese summer.
It’s not a risk Bennett is willing to take.
An ideal Olympics course only comes around once in a lifetime, and the 31-year-old is going all-in to arrive in top condition.
“I would say that a climber at Jumbo-Visma or Ineos has the hardest job in the whole Tour de France,” he said. “The amount of time we’re on the front, and you’re doing all the work of the GC guy, except you’re not waiting for the last kilometer you’re riding to the last kilometer. You’re always absolutely smashed by the end.”
Jumbo-Visma handed Bennett the freedom to race the Giro rather than forcing him to go to the Tour at the start of this year, a situation that had looked in some jeopardy when Tom Dumoulin put his career on pause.
Fortunately for Bennett, Jonas Vingegaard impressed through the spring and was handed his first Tour start in Dumoulin’s absence. Bennett’s Olympic summer was kept clear, and his Giro-Olympic dream remained alive.
No Jumbo-Visma vs Ineos Grenadiers showdown in Italy
Bennett has long been lurking at the edge of the frame in GC racing.
Hitting a career-best eighth at the 2018 Giro when given the rare chance to ride for his own results and still able to finish 12th while supporting Roglič at last fall’s Vuelta a España, could this year’s Italian tour see Bennett trade his Kiwi champion’s jersey for the maglia rosa?
Bennett wasn’t too sure.
“Ineos is sending their best rider to the Giro with an extremely strong team and I’m under no illusion that I’m going wheel to wheel with Egan Bernal day-in-day-out,” he said. “I just want to do the best 21 days I can, and see what works out.”
Ineos Grenadiers sends a stacked startlist to support Bernal, with Pavel Sivakov and Daniel Martínez set to provide the three-prong threat. Meanwhile, Jumbo-Visma is saving its heavy artillery for the Tour, instead sending young talents Tobias Foss and Koen Bouwman to watch Bennett’s back in the mountains.
The grand tour battle between Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma was one of the storylines of 2020. If you’re waiting to see the next chapter of the mighty rivalry, Bennett said you’ll have to wait until July.
“There will be certain races where there’s a big match-up between us and Ineos, and that’s these where you might have a roster of me Stevie [Kruijswijk] and Primož to Bernal, [Geraint] Thomas and [Richard] Carapaz or something. But when you go up as absolute leader me vs Bernal I don’t think there’s that same sort of rivalry.”
“We’ve got a team full of hidden talents for the Giro like Foss and if we pull it together we can do great things. But I don’t think it serves us any good to go and think of us versus Ineos or anything like that at the Giro.”
For Bennett, anything better than his career-best eighth in Italy this month would be a win.
But whether he gets that or not, he’s got the result he wanted already – a clear road to Tokyo.