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In March, George Bennett was preparing for a rare chance to lead Jumbo-Visma in a Grand Tour at the Giro d’Italia. Fast forward a few months, and a global pandemic and general reshuffle of ambitions has seen the specialist climber postpone his Giro quest in order to form part of Jumbo-Visma’s Tour de France challenge.
Bennett is of course no stranger to Jumbo-Visma’s desire for high performing mountain domestiques, having helped to guide Steven Kruijswijk to third in last year’s Tour before then shepherding Primož Roglič to a mightily impressive maiden Vuelta a España title.
The Giro was supposed to represent a chance for Bennett to improve on his eighth place finish from 2018, but with the race calendar thrown into chaos due to COVID-19 and health issues surrounding Laurens De Plus, the Jumbo-Visma squad were forced to turn to Bennett to replace the Belgian in their Tour line-up.
The switch in programme has meant that Bennett has been required to drop his own GC plans for the year, and while that represents a personal blow he also sees the Tour as an opportunity to achieve something special as part of a team.
“It’s a lot to take in and there are huge pros and cons with each one,” he told Cyclingnews. “On the one hand it’s such an exciting thing, to be part of a team trying to win the yellow jersey but of course we’re bike racers and I naturally want to ride for GC as well. So there are mixed emotions and it’s hard to say if one is better than the other. They’re just different.”
Jumbo-Visma head to the Tour de France with three potential leaders in Roglič, Tom Dumoulin and Kruijswijk. The two Dutch parts of the trifecta have suffered with injuries and illnesses this year, while Dumoulin hasn’t even raced since last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, but any questions over current form can be addressed with the fact that this is still Jumbo-Visma’s best even Tour team on paper.
Roglič restarted his season last weekend with a win in the Slovenian National Championships, and with Bennett, Robert Gesink, Sepp Kuss, Tony Martin and Wout Van Aert to offer assistance, the team are the closest threat to end the domination of Team Ineos.
“I’m really confident that we’re going to be racing at the Tour and it’s been a big project for this team. We’ve been coming together for so long. It’s exciting to be part of it. I just need to leave any personal ambition at home.
“Of course that’s hard. As a GC rider you don’t just shrug it off and say, ‘OK – let’s go.’ You have to think if you’re prepared to do it but at the end of the day, and I’ve said this to the team, I’ll go where the team wants me to go and I’ll do the best.”
Of the powerful Jumbo-Visma lineup, packed with climbing talent and three potential leaders, Bennett said, “It’s a pretty awesome line up. When I look around everyone of the eight riders in their own right is a star in what they do.
“Tony is one of the best, if not the best domestiques on the flats. Wout the same thing – he could win the green jersey if he was on a different team. Robert Gesink has been top five in the Tour a couple of times and Sep can climb and won a stage in the Vuelta.
“I’ve been climbing with the best and then we’ve got Steven, Roglič and Tom. On paper it’s a great team and that makes you a bit more excited. We don’t have split agendas and we’re not doing leadouts, it’s just one goal and we’re for GC.”
Jumbo Visma are heading to the Tour to win and their strength in depth will be crucial when it comes to such a difficult task. However, Bennett believes that victory will ultimately come down to which team has the strongest rider and that the lineup between Jumbo Visma, Ineos and a number of other strong teams in the field will cancel each other out.
“For me the team is really important but what’s perhaps more important is the strength of your best guy,” Bennett said. “At the end of the day, let’s say Bernal, Froome or Thomas or Roglič, Steven or Tom; whoever ends up being the man, they’re both going to be delivered to the perfect place.
“We’re going to be able to see which leader from each team is the strongest. Both teams are so strong that I think it’s going to come down to who the best guy. From what I’ve seen of Primož, I’ve never seen a guy as strong but I’m sure the guys at Ineos would say the same about Bernal.”
No matter how the Tour pans out, Bennett is determined to make the most of racing once it recommences. He also has his eye on next year, when he will finally get the chance to lead the line at the Giro d’Italia. After yet another Grand Tour riding in the services of others, Bennett certainly deserves his opportunity.
“It’s a crazy year but I know that next year I’m going to the Giro anyway and maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to have missed two Tours in a row, even if I’m going in the capacity as a helper this year.
“I know that next year I definitely won’t be at the Tour because my big goals will be the Giro and the Olympics.”