The BDO New Zealand Road Cycling Championships could prove a life-changing one for World Tour rider George Bennett, even if he does not win. Bennett is among five World Tour male professionals to compete in the Championships in Napier, with the time trials on Friday 5 January, the women’s road race on Saturday and men on Sunday.
He joins Jack Bauer, Tom Scully, Alex Frame and Sam Bewley as World Tour riders competing, with a sixth, Paddy Bevin, forced to withdraw after an accident in training last week. Bennett, who rides for Lotto NL Jumbo pro team, is back on the bike after surgery that he hopes will cure a career-long issue of side-stitch which has plagued the 27-year-old.
Exhaustive tests in Europe led to surgery to cure blockages in a ligament in the abdomen which is hoped will solve a significant issue for the Nelson rider. Just back on the bike after Christmas festivities with friends and family, Bennett will put the pressure on for the first time in Sunday’s 171km road race. “I’ve been back on the bike a week although I did train quite hard before the surgery. The first intensive exercise will be at the nationals, but we just don’t know what will happen. If it is successful then it would be life-changing.”
He has opted out of the time trial to get himself as ready as possible for the road race, a title he has never won. “While there are the World Tour guys racing, anyone can win the nationals if they prepare well and get it right. I am coming in without any ambitions really and will just try to race smart.
“The nationals are a good thing for us to do. I enjoy it and I want to support it.”
Bennett enjoyed a breakthrough 2017 after only previously being considered at home in the mountains. Early season top-10 finishes on general classification at Abu Dhabi and the Volta Catalunya led to his outstanding yellow jersey victory in the Tour of California, where he was also third in the Points and sixth in Mountain categories. “The result was huge to my confidence and also within the team. It also freed me up for a different role in the Tour de France.”
A crash in the wet opening prologue time trial lost two minutes and by stage four he was still in 60th two minutes back. But 14th on stage five, seventh on stage seven and eighth on stage 12 saw the Kiwi launch up to ninth place overall. “I felt good and with two big mountain stages to go that I could pick off some more placings.”
But staying healthy while riding 3540kms in a month is challenging, with Bennett coming down with an extreme fever. He raced on which sank him and he was forced to withdraw. “There are three key things on the Tour. One is to stay upright and the second is eating enough. The third is to stay healthy.
“I was down on things following my withdrawal. But now in hindsight I have to be proud of it. For 16 days I rode alongside the best in the sport.”
Bennett said on reflection he made himself too available to team commitments and meet-and-greets which he will learn from this year. But for now, all eyes are on Sunday which could prove a litmus test for his future. “Success for me would be a day when I am able to do something in the race and I have no side-stitch. If that happened it would be a raging success.”
The time trial, over 40kms for men and 25km for women, is again based at Church Road Winery on Friday from 10am with elite men at noon.
The road race is a similar course to 2017, although there is no added flat lap at the end of the course to bring the riders back in the opposite direction to the finish line. Instead after the rural loop to Taradale hills, the riders climb over Napier Hill to the start-finish line on Marine Parade. The men, who race 171km, will then complete a further eight full city loops over the hill, and women, who race 114kms including five full city loops, with a final 500m along the foreshore to the finish.
The women’s race starts at 10am on Saturday and the men at 8.30am on Sunday.
A key for the under-23 men, who race with the elite men, will be the inaugural presentation of the NZCC Memorial Trophy to honour the New Zealand Cyclists Corps who fought in the Great War mostly around Flanders Fields.
The trophy is made from a paving stone from the Kemmelberg, a battle site in WW1 and now a famed cobbled climb in Belgium, and wood from the trenches, with a New Zealand team to compete in the Gent-Wevelgem In Flanders Fields race in March as part of the centenary commemorations.