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Jettisoning bottles and jersey beefs: George Bennett and the UCI ‘cowboys’

Kiwi climber rails against governing body's strict new rules after his own memorable moments giving and receiving bottles at bike races.

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George Bennett still has the red water bottle that was thrown to him by mountain bike star Christoph Sauser in 2008.

It was a pivotal moment in the Kiwi’s relationship with cycling, and a racing career that has since developed its own super-fan – a young Spanish boy Bennett gifted a bidon to more than two years ago.

It’s safe to say that the Jumbo-Visma climber is not a fan of strict new UCI rules that could see riders facing harsh penalties if caught tossing bidons.

“If you see someone biffing a bottle into a river there should be a fine for that,” Bennett told VeloNews. “If it goes to a fan then everybody wins. The fan’s happy, the bottle isn’t going into a hole in the ground and the rider doesn’t have to keep it on his bike. There is a middle ground, and it’s very far away from the current rules.”

Images of Michael Schär tossing his bottle toward a group of roadside fans at Sunday’s Tour of Flanders have gone viral in the wake of the Swiss veteran’s ejection from the race for breaching new UCI regulations.

As of April 1, the governing body has imposed a strict new set of measures for littering outside designated trash zones or adopting the “super tuck,” with riders facing time penalties or disqualification if they’re found to be in breach of the rules.

Also read: Is Michael Schär’s ejection from the Tour of Flanders too harsh?

Amid a surge of criticism and debate of overreach in the new measures, a different video that made waves on social media more than two years ago has resurfaced – that of Bennett passing his bottle to a Spanish boy at the 2018 Vuelta a España.

It was one of two incidents the 31-year-old said have shaped his cycling career.

“I’ve been thinking about the new rules for the last few days and it’s making me progressively more pissed off,” Bennett said.

“There are two formative experiences I have been a part of involving a bottle,” he said. “One was when I first went overseas as a mountain biker to do the world champs [in 2008], and Christoph Sauser was on his way to winning the world champs in Val di Sole and he threw me his bottle. I’ve still got that bottle – a red Specialized one – in my house. I was like ‘wow this is amazing.’ This was the first bottle I got, and that got me hooked on Europe. I was like, ‘how cool is this?’

“And then the second was when I gave this bottle to the little kid. He now comes to every single race in Spain and waits outside the bus with his Stefano Garzelli cycling team teammates,” he said. “They all follow cycling because they were so excited that this kid was running along, got this bottle and it made his year. Now he loves coming to bike races and following it. And to think that you’d be kicked out of a race for doing that.”

Schär has not been the only victim of the UCI’s new rules. Kyle Murphy was DQ’d from GP Miguel Indurain last weekend for accidentally dropping a gel wrapper, and Letizia Borghesi fined and thrown out of the women’s Tour of Flanders for throwing a bottle outside of a designated trash zone.

The resulting chorus of criticism from within the peloton forced the CPA to press for change, with Bici.Pro reporting that the riders’ group hopes to renegotiate the ruling at the next Council of Professional Cycling meeting next week.

Although Bennett spoke with VeloNews ahead of the CPA’s statement Thursday, it seems likely he backs some intervention.

“Expulsion from a race is reserved for the worst kind of behavior,” he said. “We can literally piss in the middle of a city – a jailable offense – and pay a few hundred euros, or we can give a bottle to a little kid and be thrown out of the race.”

Furor over a fern

Bennett’s first-choice jersey design was shut down by the NZ Federation and the UCI. Photo: Bram Berkien

“BidonGate” is not the first time that Bennett has found reason to have beef with the UCI and its partners this year.

Also read: Bennett on national championship victory: “I have always wanted to win this jersey”

After winning his first-ever New Zealand national title this winter, Bennett landed the honor of designing his Kiwi champion’s jersey. Only he found his planned silver fern design shut down by his national federation and the UCI on account of the national team already registering a similar garment.

Bennett now wears a similar jersey to the design he had dreamed of, only inverted and with the national symbol of the fern now colored black. It comes at a price.

“It’s a beautiful jersey, and yeh there was obviously a bit of a furor around the whole changes of design,” Bennett said. “But what’s been a real mission is that I now look exactly like Team Qhubeka-Assos. And the fact that no one can tell who I am means I’m just getting chopped left right and center in the peloton at the moment – people don’t let me sit on my own teammates’ wheel. In Paris-Nice I ended up putting a yellow helmet on because I got chopped up too much. That’s how I crashed.”

The new rules introduced by the UCI at the start of this month, along with the recent controversy around sexual harassment within the Doltcini-Van Eyck Sport team, marked the final nail in the coffin regarding Bennett’s views of the UCI.

“It’s such a double-standard when you’ve got the UCI behaving like absolute cowboys,” he said. “All they seem to care about is world champion’s stripes on a skin suit and color patterns on a national jersey. Why not focus on finish lines, rider safety, anti-doping, and managers in women’s teams where there are sexual harassment cases – things that are actual issues.

“They’re putting all of them in the ‘too hard’ basket, but bin guys for littering because they can see that here and now,” he continued. “They’re just looking at the things that are in front of their face, that they can do something about as opposed to trying to actually fix our sport. This bottle thing seems like a good metaphor of just how ridiculous they are.”