It’s been a week of excellent performances in New Zealand sport this week with the Black Caps upsetting the books to win their World Cup semi-final against India. Could George do the same and end stage 6 trading his yellow and black jersey for straight yellow?
I think we can say with confidence that never in the Tour de France’s 116 year history has a Kiwi been in such a good position to potentially get a shot at the maillot jaune on the eve of the mountains. Just three riders and 25 seconds separate George Bennett from the overall lead of the Tour de France and it’s a well known fact that just about anything can and does happen in a mountain stage of the Tour de France. We are in a unique position of realistically daring to dream that maybe two consecutive days could yield two equally wonderful New Zealand performances across different codes.
We also have to try and produce a balanced argument. I am, after all, an Englishman who knows sport doesn’t go as you dream it might; and as such I can’t get myself carried away with certainty that George will end tomorrow in yellow. So here, in my very English way, is my balanced argument to why George will and won’t be in yellow at the top of La Planche des Belles Filles.
Why he WILL – position overall
Let’s start with the maths. 4th overall at 25 seconds behind Julian Alaphilippe. This is a great position for anyone to be in when their strength is mountains and plenty of them are on the cards for tomorrow. Alaphilippe is the defending king of the mountains in the Tour de France and in my opinion could be France’s next big hope for a Tour title; but he needs possibly two or three years of avid focus on his GC credentials to reach that point. I don’t expect him to be in yellow by the end of the day. Wout Van Aert won’t be, good as he is, and diversified as he is, his climbing skills are not world renowned. So take the top two away and we have Steven Kruijswijk and George Bennett as the first riders who could likely hold their ground in the GC battle.
It’s interesting also that at the end of stage two Jumbo-Visma occupied the top five places on GC. Now just Van Aert, Kruijswijk and Bennett remain in their positions; with Laurens De Plus the next highest overall at 5.48mins. That could just be the way things have transpired, but it could also suggest that the team have opted to try and keep George in the mix as a potential back-up plan for the GC after things started so well this week for the team.
Why he WON’T – Team Ineos
The gap back to the next contenders overall starts at 15 seconds to Egan Bernal and 20 seconds to Geraint Thomas. The Ineos duo could be a fascinating watch, but George has shown in recent years that he can certainly climb amongst the best. Egan Bernal is just something extraordinary though, everything he has touched this year seems to turn to gold; and if Ineos decide to put the hammer down – as they’re expected to do – the damage could be severe.
Ineos are in their element and they know it. So far their positional skill has been excellent, putting Thomas and Bernal in exactly the right places at the right times; and that against sprint teams with whom they’re not even contending. In the mountains, when they come into their own it’s hard to look beyond them. Jumbo-Visma have shown that they’re a team building mountain strength, but expect that to be put in the pressure cooker tonight.
Why he WILL – no pressure
While we talk about Team Ineos’ strength, Jumbo-Visma can approach the stage with confidence, knowing that while they’re the best placed of the GC-oriented teams and at least in the next couple of days it’s up to the likes of Astana, Movistar, Team Ineos etc to go on the offensive. The time gaps aren’t huge, and Jumbo-Visma will need to attack if they’re to assert control over the race, but it’s much more up to the other teams to spend their matches earlier. All going well Jumbo-Visma don’t need to strike until late in the stage which could lead to George and Steven riding up most of La Planche des Belles Filles relatively fresh. The likes of Richie Porte (1.43mins behind yellow), Romain Bardet (1.44mins), Nairo Quintana (1.30) all need to be much more proactive and that could cost them vital energy sooner.
There’s also another pressure-related reason for George Bennett, rather than Steven Kruijswijk, stepping into the maillot jaune if the opportunity presents itself. The yellow jersey gets laden with a whole host of responsibilities and requirements post-stage that all take time and energy. This disrupts the typical post-stage recovery procedure. Kruijswijk is the team’s focus for a top GC performance and having George in the jersey instead of Steven could be a great way to not potentially overload pressure on the Dutchman’s shoulders; allow him to continue recovering as normally as possible for as long as possible.
Why he WON’T – priorities
In an ideal world George Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk will fend off every challenge thrown at them on the slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles, they will then launch a two-up team time trial attack with 3km to go, putting over a minute into their nearest rivals. Approaching the finish line Kruijswijk will insist that his devoted Kiwi lieutenant takes the lead and crosses the line first; a little like LeMond and Hinault on Alpe d’Huez in ’86 but without the weird tension.
However, this is the Tour de France, and as the likes of Richie Porte know, anything can and usually does happen. A crash at the bottom of a crucial climb, a mechanical just as a GC contender is attacking, hitting the wall and bonking early, a spectator getting too close for comfort; all these things have disrupted a GC contender in their pursuit of time or stage honours. If any of these things should happen to Steven Kruijswijk then depending on the severity of the situation it will be up to Bennett to sacrifice his opportunity for his teammate.