3 Jan 2018

Nationals 'litmus-test' for post-surgery Bennett

3:26 pm on 3 January 2018

The New Zealand Road Cycling Championships could prove life-changing for George Bennett, even if he does not win.

Nelson cyclist George Bennett.

Nelson cyclist George Bennett. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Bennett is among five World Tour male professionals competing in the event in Napier this week, with the time trials on Friday and the road races held at the weekend.

The Lotto NL Jumbo rider 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 is back on the bike after surgery he hopes will cure a side-stitch issue which has plagued the 27-year-old's entire career.

Exhaustive tests in Europe led to surgery to cure blockages in a ligament in the abdomen, which is hoped will solve a significant issue.

Just back on the bike after Christmas festivities with friends and family, the Nelsonian 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," Bennett said.

"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."

Previously been considered at home in the mountains, Bennett proved his allround capabilities as he enjoyed a breakthrough 2017.

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 Bennett 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 him rocket up to ninth place overall.

"I felt good and with two big mountain stages to go that I could pick off some more placings."

However, 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 it 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.

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 women's race starts at 10am on Saturday and the men at 8.30am on Sunday.