It is hard to believe that New Zealand cyclist George Bennett is only 26. After all, in his brief five-year career he has already raced for three World Tour teams in three different countries–the American RadioShack team, the Italian Cannondale team and now the Dutch Lotto-Jumbo team.

But the amiable Bennett has gained a wealth of experience in those years, experience that paid off big time in this year’s Tour of Spain, where he finished a strong 10th overall.

Words/image: James Startt, European Associate,  from Paris, France

George, I’m always so curious to find out how people get into cycling in different parts of the world. New Zealand has not produced tons of world-class cyclists. How did you get started? Well like just about every kid in New Zealand, I started by playing rugby. That’s just what anyone interested in sports does there. And then I got into mountain biking, mostly for rugby conditioning. I would go out with a couple of mates that were mountain bikers. I was no natural, and at first I would always get dropped on the climbs. I was just terrible up the hills and then I would crash in every other corner!

But you know, I wasn’t really built for rugby, so I continued cycling and improved a lot. I didn’t really start doing national-level races until I was about 16. And still I would play rugby. I remember one year, I got second at nationals in mountain biking, but I was still playing rugby on Saturday mornings. It was only when I went to the world championships in Italy in 2008 that I really knew that I wanted a career on the road. Soon I put my life in a box and moved over to Europe and I quickly moved up in the ranks. At first I was on the CR4C Roanne team in France and was set to sign La Pomme Marseille Team in 2011, but when I learned that they were going to become a professional Continental team, I opted out of that.

You mean you actually turned down a professional contract? Oh yeah. I just knew that I didn’t want to get sucked into Continental circuit because riders can really get stuck there. I wanted to make it at the top level. I eventually got to ride on the Trek-Livestrong under-23 team with Axel Merckx. I could have made 30,000 Euros a year with la Pomme, but I would rather make nothing and have a real chance to ride with one of the best teams. As it turns out, I didn’t stay with Trek-Livestrong very long. I got a tryout with RadioShack and signed with them in 2012.

It’s interesting because, while you are only 26, you have ridden in four different countries and on three different World Tour teams. Yeh, it’s been great to keep moving around and keep getting exposed to different cultures. It’s funny but every country has has its stereotypes, and although it can be dangerous to stereotype, sometimes the stereotypes exist for a reason. I mean the Italians are very passionate and cycling for them is all about the passion, to the extent that they were not very scientific. For example I wanted to eat muesli for breakfast and they were like, “No you have to eat white bread and pasta!”

The French would put syrup in the water bottles instead of energy drink, and yet they are always so obsessed with weight. They were always telling me what to eat or not to eat, even though I was the skinniest guy on the team.

The Americans just seemed to exaggerate everything. Everything was awesome or epic or insane. I found that I had to take some things with a grain of salt sometimes. But in general I had an awesome experience riding for an American team. And it was good to get to really know some Americans because the Americans I know don’t vote for Donald Trump. I have an American family I stay with whenever I am over there and they were total Bernie fans.

And then there are the Dutch. They don’t like spending money that’s for sure! And sometimes I struggle with how forward they are because they just seem to comment on anything. But at the same time I really appreciate their professionalism and they are just really good guys, and quite funny once you get to know them! I’m really enjoying the Dutch culture to be honest.

You were on a pretty big learning curve this year as you did both the Tour de France and the Tour of Spain. And it seemed to pay off as you finished 10th in the Vuelta. Yeh and I managed to do the Olympics in between. I think I just turned into a big racing machine. I just loved the racing. I was enjoying myself and getting the miles in my legs at the same time. As a result the confidence started growing. You know I didn’t ride the Tour de France for the overall classification, but instead picked certain stages. As a result I didn’t come out of the Tour completely wasted.

My teammate Robert Gesink really helped me in the Tour of Spain a lot this year as well. We are very different riders. I can be very relaxed and I don’t mind hanging out at the back of the pack. And that can definitely be a fault. Robert is the opposite. He has a lot of experience in the grand tours is always on when he needs to be. That’s something I need to learn.

You got a lot of hits on social media on that epic stage in the Tour to Andorra (stage 9), where in addition to the apocalyptic weather conditions, you actually hit a fan that leaned to far into a corner. Yeh, I just learned so much that day it wasn’t even funny. Looking back I rode very dumbly! I was attacking like crazy on the second to last climb thinking I was going to win the stage. And I just totally underestimated that last climb. But that’s how you learn.

I was a lot smarter in the Vuelta. I was more patient. I understood that everyone wants to win the race, so it’s not up to me to drive it or break up the race. Racing is hard enough and it will break up on its own. The big difference between the Tour and the Vuelta is that I learned to be more patient.

You are only 26. With your improving results do you think you will have more opportunities to ride for yourself on the team or are you still going to be riding support a lot. I think I’ll still be a main support rider. The big thing for me right now is to find a solution to a chronic side stitch problem that I’ve had for the last five or six years. Every time I am really going hard, be it in a time trial or a hard mountain stage, I am basically battling chronic side stitch. Right now that is the main thing that is holding me back. But until I get that fixed I’m going to be on work duty. I’m doing everything I can to do fix it. I’m at the New Zealand Institute of Sport in Christchurch right now, try to find a solution.

That said, I do have ambitions to be a team leader. I’ve shown that I can handle three weeks. Some day my day will come.