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Tour de France

George Bennett on Tadej Pogačar: ‘Jumbo-Visma underestimated him in 2020’

New Zealand climber says UAE needs to avoid focusing only on Jumbo-Visma as Tour de France heats up.

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LILLE, France (VN) — George Bennett and the rest of UAE Team Emirates are bracing for the worst across the cobblestones and narrow roads of northern France.

With Tadej Pogačar ever closer to the Alps, arch rivals like Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers keep trying to rattle the seemingly unshakable two-time Tour champion. Bennett said the team’s guard is up in week one of the Tour de France.

“Jumbo-Visma need to make the difference in the first week and I think that is what they will try to do,” Bennett told VeloNews. “The first week especially is full of booby traps. It’s inevitable we’re not going to get a clean run, something will happen at some point, and that will be a real challenge for us.”

So far, Pogačar’s avoided major troubles. He was gapped out in Tuesday’s frenetic finale, but finished safely in the GC group behind stage winner Wout van Aert.

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Pogacar’s hardest week of the 2022 Tour will be the one with the least amount of climbing. It’s the cobblestones, the echelons, and risks of crashing that are his top enemy.

Pogacar made it out of three days of Denmark with a few minor bumps and scrapes, but’s avoided serious mishaps so far going into Wednesday’s key cobblestone stage poised in third place overall.

Bennett, who joined UAE this year after racing several seasons with Jumbo-Visma, knows that his former bosses will try to find allies on the road in the form of Ineos Grenadiers and others, like Bora-Hansgrohe, to try to push a wedge.

Bennett said UAE is ready for that moment that could come this week when Pogacar’s near-perfect run across two editions of the Tour could come screeching to an end.

Pogacar and his cool head under pressure could be his best ally if and when that moment comes, says Bennett.

“Whether it’s on the cobbles, where it’s in the crosswinds, or crashes or whatever, sooner or later there is going to be a bad moment,” Bennett said. “I think he is extremely cool under pressure. It’s also that he is so strong, he can avoid a lot of these situations. There will be bad luck at some point, and we need to make sure that we are all around so we can put out those fires.”

From rival to helper, Bennett holding fire until the mountains

Tadej Pogacar and his teammates on stage in Copenhagen (Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Bennett is a key arrival this season for Pogačar’s growing arsenal at UAE Team Emirates.

The New Zealand climber was signed to give Pogačar stronger support deeper into the mountains.

Bennett raced the 2020 Tour for Jumbo-Visma and had a front-row seat to how strong and determined Pogačar can be.

He said Jumbo-Visma made a critical mistake in 2020 by focusing too much on Ineos Grenadiers, and not taking Pogačar as a direct threat until it was too late.

“When I was racing against him at Jumbo-Visma, he was still Primoz’s little friend, the was the guy who was coming through,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t until late in the 2020 Tour when we suddenly went, oh shit this guy is really really good. There was no more Slovenian joy helping each other out. The team went, OK this guy is a rival.

“During the Tour in 2020, we were looking at Ineos the whole time,” Bennett said. “Remember the day on the Peyresourde? He took some time, and we really didn’t panic. OK that is Primoz’s  friend, but from that point on, we said, OK, there are no more friends.”

Bennett said that stage was the key moment when everyone inside the Jumbo-Visma bus realized Pogačar could be the team’s most dangerous singular rival.

“Finally there were no more freebies, then he sort of became more a direct  No. 1 competition,” Bennett said. “The evolution of that is, he is the No. 1 favorite, he’s won the last two Tours.”

Bennett said he’s determined to help UAE not repeat that same mistake.

He also cautioned that UAE Team Emirates cannot obsess only on Jumbo-Visma, a tactic that could leave the door open for Ineos Grenadiers or Bora-Hansgrohe to barrel through.

“There is a big danger of saying that this is Jumbo versus UAE, then you have Ineos and Bora,” he said. “There are so many guys and it’s something we need to avoid, then we are just opening ourselves up to having every other team to having a free ride.

“We cannot think about too many teams,” he said. “We are going to be at the front, ride his pace on the climb, and then be ready to handle whatever comes our way.

“Jumbo will push him, Vlasov will be good, so Tadej needs to be really good and he is really good,” Bennett said. “Despite his dominance, I think we’re going to have a real race on our hands. Primož and Jonas are going to be hard to manage. We can do it, but I think it’s going to be a super exciting race. From a bike racing fan, it’s going to be great to watch.”

So far, Bennett is proving right.