BRIOUDE, France (VN) – Jumbo-Visma couldn’t have dreamed of a better start to the 106th Tour: first in stage 1, first again in the team time trial, a couple of days with the yellow jersey, and then first again in the sprint for stage 7.
With more than half the distance of the 2019 race already under the wheels of the riders, the Dutch team still has two men in the top seven: George Bennett in fourth (at 1:10), and Steven Kruijswijk in seventh (at 1:27).
Kiwi rider Bennett could be forgiven for being a little distracted today; he’s a mad fan of two of New Zealand’s most popular sports, rugby and cricket. And the ‘Black Caps’ are playing England in the final of the World Cup today at Lords in London.
Yes, I know this is an American site… and so, when speaking with Bennett yesterday morning, although I knew the answer, I posed the question for the benefit of this audience: “What’s cricket?”
“Greatest game in the world,” he replied.
(At the time of writing, in case you’re interested, New Zealand had just finished its 50 overs: 241 runs, eight wickets. If you don’t know anything about cricket, that’s a reasonable run rate… but there’s reason for Bennett to be nervous. Not sure it’ll be enough to beat the home team.)
Our 180cm tall Kiwi mate at the Tour weighs in at about 58kg. One glance at his twig-like legs and you’d never believe it possible that he ever even considered playing rugby… but he’s from New Zealand, so of course he did.
“Started when I was five,” he says about the kind of football that enjoys cult status in New Zealand.
“I was still playing rugby in my last year of school. I was 17 years old when I played my last game of footy.”
Ouch, I reply when he relays this news. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight, I suggested.
“No,” he laughs, “you’d probably see my arm fall off or something.”
If you know rugby, consider 58kg thumping into a 120kg rival. It’s not exactly a fair contest. Actually, it’d be downright painful. But he loves the game, played the game, and understands all about pain.
‘The Stitch:’ a thorn in his side.
George Bennett won the 2017 Tour of California in fine style. He likes to climb, that’s his schtick. It’s why he goes a little shy when “winning the TTT in Brussels” is mentioned.
“That’s a stretch,” he says when I call him a Tour stage winner. “I can’t say I contributed too much, but ah… alright, it goes on the palmarès.”
In fact, he sat at the back of the Jumbo-Visma paceline and was allowed to just follow wheels in stage two. Stay safe, was the instruction. Or perhaps it was a little more direct: stay out of the way! The TT isn’t exactly a specialty.
Still, he has achieved a few good results since joining the WorldTour peloton as a 21-year-old with RadioShack back in 2011. And all of them, including his eighth in the Giro last year and 10th in the 2017 Vuelta, done while enduring the pain of what he calls ‘The Stitch’.
That’s the New Zealand name for what Americans know as a ‘stomach cramp’, or ‘side ache’.
He told me about the issue earlier this year, and I promptly asked for more information. His answer was clearly well-practiced: “You ever eaten lots and gone for a run?”
There’s a pain in your guts that this can elicit. It is what Bennett has lived with since he started cycling seriously after his rugby playing days.
“I get that really badly just when I go hard on a bike.”
It’s a problem medical professionals around the world are struggling to understand. “No one knows what the stitch is,” he says. “No one knows if it’s gastro-intestinal or trapped nerves or cramps or ischemia…”
But what it translates to is pain, constant pain when he’s exercising. There is a remedy, Bennett tells me: “Just slow down and it goes away.
“But,” he continues, “that’s not really an option when someone is paying you to race your bike. You’ve got to kind of keep going.”
He’s had multiple operations and medical interventions to try and fix the issue but, to date, none have worked.
4th on GC: for now…
“I’ve stolen a couple of top-10s in a Grand Tour,” is how Bennett explains his Giro and Vuelta results in recent years, adding: “A top-five would be good.”
He was ranked fourth in the Tour after nine stages, better than the designated leader of his Dutch team, Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk. But Bennett knows his good GC position isn’t going to last.
Jumbo-Visma’s DS at the Tour, Frans Maassen, told me he was happy with Bennett’s good placing but, as the race aims towards the Pyrenees, the Kiwi will soon be on domestique duties for the Kruijswijk.
Minutes later, Bennett walks out of the team bus in Mâcon, saunters over to have a chat and I ask how well prepared he is to sacrifice himself for another. “One hundred percent,” he says. No hesitation, no regrets. Actually, he quite likes the idea.
“A bonus to being just a helper is that, every day, you just wake up, look at the road book and then you get told what you’ve got to do in the bus,” he says of the routine he’s been following this July. “You do that, and then… that’s it.” Job done.
Then? Sleep. Rest. Repeat.
He’s happy enough. And what makes him even happier in July than he was in January is that he believes that doctors may have discovered what’s causing the pain in the abdomen.
Given that he was ranked fourth overall after the difficult stage to La Planche des Belles Filles, I wondered if perhaps he’d solved ‘The Stitch’ before the Tour.
“No, not yet.”
The pain continues. But he keeps on racing. And he keeps on smiling despite the setback – and what helps him get through each day is that there’s another theory about the cause of his pain that is now floating around.
“We think I’ve got a bit of a weird rib cage,” he told me on Saturday morning.
“I’ve been doing a lot of tests, a lot of scans, and I’ve got some extra cartilage that is broken off and moving around in there, so that might be something that could be causing it. So now we have to investigate that further later in the year.
“But there’s no easy cure for that, short of surgery and things like that.
“So, we’re going down that wormhole at the moment.”
Cartilage? Floating around? Huh…?!
He points to where the pain is and continues with his telling: “When I breathe, I have these bits that are broken off down there.” He points to the base of his ribs, on the right-hand side of his body. “I don’t know what it was from, maybe a bit of impact as I was growing up, or I was born like that.”
Or, I wonder, maybe it was his rugby playing days.
It’s probably better to race a bike – even with a pain in the guts – and not try to tackle giants on the football field. Finishing the Tour de France is tough enough already, but Bennett is confident that Jumbo-Visma’s successes this July haven’t finished yet. He’s happy with how the first week has gone.
No New Zealander has ever been ranked in the top five of the Tour’s GC. Bennett has. He’s won a stage too. But soon it’s onwards to the Pyrenees and working for Kruijswijk, and he’s happy enough about that.
“So, they said I could go for it [at La Planche des Belles Filles] and I gave it a good shot but… back to work,” he said, “back to the day job.”
To hear Rob’s full interview with Bennett in January this year, check out this video. It’s long, but stick with it; the Kiwi tells a good yarn: