George Bennett has been named New Zealand People’s Choice Men’s Rider of the Decade for 2010-2019.  The Kiwi climber was voted for in our RoadCycling poll by the public, who also named Linda Villumsen and Rushlee Buchanan as joint women’s rider of the decade.

George Bennett: From youthful domestique to history-making climbing force

Aged 19, George Bennett started the 2010-2019 decade a season that included a first UCI World Road Championship call up as an Under 23 for the road race that took place in Geelong.  He finished 27th that year in a race won by a certain Michael Matthews, with John Degenkolb and Taylor Phinney taking silver and bronze.  That world championship outing came in a year of strong performances at what was then the Tour of Wellington and Tour of Southland.  Bennett also spent time racing in France with top ten results at the Rhône-Alpes Isère Tour, Ronde de l’Isard, Tour des Pays de Savoie.  It would be the only season in the last decade where Bennett has not ridden for a World Tour outfit.  

That began in 2011 with a contract with Trek-Livestrong p/b Radioshack which saw him later graduate into the World Tour set up and remain there until 2014.  In that time he won the Tour of Wellington, began to impress on the American circuit at races like the Tour of Utah, USA Pro Cycling Challenge and Amgen Tour of California, and got his first start at a grand tour; the 2013 Giro d’Italia which he completed.  

At Cannondale in 2014 he rode the Vuelta a Espana for the first time and continued to show promise at races like Paris-Nice, developing his reputation as a climber in some of the world’s biggest week-long races.  He finished 9th in the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and 12th in the Giro del Trentino before Jumbo-Visma – then Team LottoNL-Jumbo – came knocking.  It’s a team he remains with to this day.

George Bennett and Patrick Bevin in action at the Tour de Vineyards, photo Blair Hall / Imagepress.co.nz

If Radioshack and Cannondale were the incubators for George Bennett’s talent, then the entire second half of the decade with the boys in yellow and black have seen a realisation of his status as one of the most respected climbers in world cycling.  He took his opportunity at the first grand tour given him by the team, when he placed 4th in stage 16 of the Vuelta a Espana behind Fränk Schleck; repeating the feat the following year in stage 14 behind teammate Robert Gesink.  2016 also saw Bennett given the nod to the Tour de France team for the very first time; and he didn’t disappoint.

In stage 9 he finished 7th on the road to Andorra Arcalis in a stage that was full of wild weather and too-close-for-comfort spectators; one of whom collided with the Kiwi.  He was given the freedom to chance his arm in a break and he took it with both hands.  But better was to follow than even his first Tour outing; in which Bennett finished 53rd.  He returned to the Vuelta towards the end of August that year where became the first Kiwi to finish in the top ten of any grand tour.  His performance on the final mountain stage that was enough to see him move up that final place to 10th, joining the best of the best that year including Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome and Esteban Chaves; 2016’s top three.

The cat was out of the bag now, as Bennett moved from strong climber with a habit for being a smart breakaway rider, to being an all out GC threat wherever he went.  The following year he took his first World Tour win, victory overall in the Amgen Tour of California in a season that saw him finish in the top ten on GC in the Abu Dhabi Tour and Volta Ciclista a Catalunya.

After making history in 2016’s Vuelta a Espana, 2017 became the first and only year since his first grand tour outing where Bennett had failed to reach the finish line.  2018 saw him not only put that statistic right – he completed both the Giro and Vuelta – but he had more history-making work to do.  As Chris Froome completed the triple crown of being the reigning Vuelta, Tour and Giro champion all at the same time, Bennett rose up the GC standings from 10th in the 2016 Vuelta to 8th in the 2018 Giro.  He’d established himself as one who every bit belonged with names like Froome, Dumoulin, Lopez, Pinot and co; finishing 4th in stage 6.  More telling for us of his progression through the years was that 4th was considered a disappointing result!

George Bennett battles the rain on his way to 7th place in stage 9 of the 2016 Tour de France, photo Sirotti

2019 saw more success for George, with a strong performance to Campbelltown in stage 4 of the Santos Tour Down Under.  4th in the Amgen Tour of California – including a third place finish on Mount Baldy – led to the most memorable Tour de France yet.  Bennett was exceptional from the get go, taking the win alongside his teammates in the team time trial, spending a week in the top five of the GC and aiding the GC campaign of Steven Kruijswijk who would go on to finish third behind Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas.  As if that wasn’t enough for the season, Bennett was selected for another stint at the Vuelta a Espana where he was part of Slovenian history; their first grand tour triumph courtesy of Primož Roglič.  Bennett’s personal tour might have been a bit more subdued, ‘just’ taking 9th place in stage 7 in what was one of the most epic days of racing throughout the final grand tour of the decade.

Villumsen & Buchanan inseparable for women’s rider of the decade

The women’s category saw Linda Villumsen and Rushlee Buchanan equal on votes in their very different roles.  Villumsen created history herself for New Zealand, consistently excellent against the clock at the highest level.  From 2010 to 2017 Villumsen finished in the top ten in the individual time trial at the UCI World Road Championships on every occasion with her crowning glory coming in 2015 when she took the world title in America after five times finishing in either silver or bronze medal position.

World Championship road races were often to Villumsen’s liking when it came to delivering in the high pressure situations.  Between 2012 and 2014 the Kiwi finished 7th, 6th and 8th; twice behind the great Marianne Vos and once behind Pauline Ferrand-Prévot who between 2014-2015 became reigning world champion in the road race, cyclocross and cross country mountain biking disciplines.

Linda Villumsen became world time trial champion in 2015, photo Graham Watson

It’s an interesting statistic that possibly sums up just how focussed Villumsen could be around major championships that in four attempts Villumsen won the national time trial title just once in 2013; with the road title going her way in 2015.  Along with those titles and the world crown in 2015, Villumsen also took Commonwealth time trial gold in 2014 and silver in 2010 and 2018.

By contrast Rushlee Buchanan has been a tour de force throughout the decade when it has come to dominating the national scene and performing with distinction across road, criterium and track disciplines.  In 2017 Buchanan made history as the first four-time winner of the Elite Road National Championships road race crown in Napier.  Later that year Buchanan also took her fourth Criterium national title in Takapuna.  

Throughout the decade Buchanan has built a reputation as being one of New Zealand cycling’s busiest riders with her performances across road and track seeing her going through season after season often with little in the way of rest.  Amazingly the Waikato rider has continually been able to step up whether it has been with her UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling outfit, with whom she rode from 2014-2018, or with the Cycling New Zealand set up where she has enjoyed her major championship success on the track.  

Rushlee Buchanan made national road and criterium titles her own in the last decade, taking eight between these two disciplines alone, photo Grace Walden

Four times Buchanan has enjoyed silverware as part of the team pursuit squad; with a silver medal in the 2018 Commonwealth Games to go with three bronze medals in the 2010, 2017 and 2019 world championships.  Renowned for her strength in a team setting on the track, Buchanan also stepped up individually in 2018 where omnium bronze awaited her.

Her performance there was superb, particularly in the closing points race.  Hers was a story of persistence and testament to her never-say-die spirit as she finished 15th in the scratch race and then 13th and 9th in the following tempo and elimination races; leaving her in 11th place entering the final points race.  Getting stuck into things early, Buchanan would take two laps on the field to jump into third place in the final event; in her first attempt at the omnium at a World Championship.

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