Tour de France

Curious George Bennett a surprise Tour contender

Tour of California winner George Bennett wasn't expecting to be in the GC picture at the Tour de France, but after 11 stages he sits 10th.

PAU, France (VN) — The Tour de France looks different through the eyes of an overall contender. Stages and climbs that were opportunities become potential threats. A chance for a moment of glory morphs into a chance to lose it all. The Tour de France looks different through George Bennett’s eyes, now.

It looks a bit scary, if he’s honest.

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“It’s weird,” Bennett said, standing outside his team bus Wednesday morning. “When I first looked at the Tour, as a stage hunter, I was like ‘Ah, this Tour sucks, there are no opportunities.’ But now I look at it for the overall, and it’s like ‘oh, God, there are so many days I have to hang on.’ It’s a matter of perspective.”

The new perspective is that of 10th overall, 3:53 down on Chris Froome’s yellow jersey. Suddenly, the Tour is not what Bennett expected it to be.

Bennett’s Tour began upside down, sliding across wet pavement on his back. If you’d like a way to set expectations low, crashing on the first day works quite well. Yet a week and a half later the young Kiwi finds himself in the rarefied air of the Tour’s top GC men, benefitting from climbing form he’s never experienced before. That form only seems to be getting better. Few are more surprised by this than Bennett himself. He’s almost, but not quite, an accidental GC contender.

“Did I expect this? Not at all,” he said. “I expected to have been in a couple of breakaways by now. Probably be half an hour down. On a day like this, I probably expected to be at the Village getting a haircut, something like that. Drinking coffee and chillin’ out.”

Instead, he’s in full GC mode, riding near the front of the bunch and watching for gaps in the finale and grabbing bottles from teammates, not for them. It’s not a totally new experience: Bennett won the Tour of California this year, wearing the leader’s jersey for most of the race. But riding for GC at the Tour is something else entirely.

The new perspective and new pressure are the results of a good ride on La Planche des Belles Filles and a fantastic one on the road to Chambéry on Sunday. The latter, a massive route with three hors-categorie climbs, has Bennett wondering just how far he can go.

“We’ll see how important Sunday is in my career, but I feel like it was the best ride I’ve ever done,” he said. “I’ve never dropped some of the guys I dropped before or lasted that long with those guys. I don’t know. Maybe it was just one good day, or hopefully, it’s the new level.”

Bennett finished seventh on the day, crossing the line with Nairo Quintana, Simon Yates, Dan Martin, and Mikel Landa. He rode six watts per kilogram for over half an hour on Mont du Chat, according to his coach. Those are the sort of figures Bennett expects to see when he’s fresh. They are not the figures he expects after two hors-categorie climbs and nine days of racing. They’re the sort of numbers that land you in the top 10 of the Tour.

Still, Bennett tries not to read too much into them. He’s not a numbers guy. He doesn’t watch his power meter, doesn’t let it slow him down or force him to speed up. “At this stage in a race, after a couple stages like that, numbers are almost irrelevant,” he said. “As long as you’re healthy, you haven’t crashed, and you’re motivated … You just have to follow the guys. You can’t look down and be like, ‘oh no, this is my lactate threshold’ or some shit. You just go.”

The next two days, stages 12 and 13, are his next test. He doesn’t know how he’ll fare, and maybe that’s for the best.

“I’m as curious as you guys,” he said. “I’m excited to find out. Let’s see.”

Listen to George Bennett’s audio diary in the VeloNews podcast: