How do you measure the true worth of a rider? Their results? Their UCI ranking? Perhaps their number of social media followers? Does a rider’s contract indicate their true value in a team? Are experience, work ethic, friendship and empathy valued more than hard cash in the modern-day men’s WorldTour?
If the way UAE Team Emirates acted decisively to sign George Bennett as they build for the future, and the way the Kiwi Grand Tour rider signed off from Jumbo-Visma at the end of the season, then cycling is still about more than just results, rankings and earning big salaries.
“Thanks again to this amazing team for the last seven years. I loved all of it and I’m going to miss all the people involved,” Bennett wrote after his last race with Jumbo-Visma, posting a photo of his teammates and staff on the team bus after Il Lombardia.
Teammate and Andorra training partner Robert Gesink was first to reply, writing: “It has been a pleasure racing together mate!” He was followed by Jumbo-Visma coach Grischa Niermann who wrote: “Thanks for your fighting spirit George.”
“You see the true colours of a rider and a team when they part ways,” Bennett tells Cyclingnews, opening up about the contrasting emotions of changing teams and the realities of professional sport.
“When you don’t have any obligations or future, a relationship can change but even as I move on I have to say that Jumbo-Visma has been a great team for me. I was with the team for seven years and so I built relationships with the riders and staff. Pro cycling is far more than a normal job, so when you change it’s sad too.
“Pro riders see themselves as brothers in arms but we’re also mercenaries. We ride together, live in hotels and on the team bus together, we romanticise about it all but then our careers and contracts can be short.
“When you suffer so much in racing, take so many risks and crash, spend so much time training high up on a volcano, you have to make it more than a job. There has to be loyalty to a team and a cause and a bond with your teammates, otherwise, there’s no way we’d do it all. But at the end of the day, we’re also mercenaries that sell out to the team we think are best for us. Yet we don’t take risks just for the money in your bank account. It’s a fascinating contrast and perhaps what makes our sport special.”
The stars align for a move to UAE Team Emirates
Bennett is changing from Jumbo-Visma to UAE Team Emirates because of personal choice but also due to market forces. The Dutch team have decided to rejuvenate their roster and perhaps simply decided another rider can fill Bennett’s role.
UAE Team Emirates pursued Bennett because they need his experience and ability to secure certain results as they build their roster beyond Tadej Pogacar. Bennett is one of several key signings alongside João Almeida, Marc Soler and sprinters Alvaro Hodeg and Pascal Ackermann, with a host of young talents also developing rapidly. Fellow Kiwi Finn Fisher-Black is also making the move.
To use a simple football analogy: Jumbo-Visma had too many midfield players, while UAE Team Emirates needed a key playmaker to become even better in the years ahead.
Bennett had interest from four other teams and could have perhaps stayed in his comfort zone at Jumbo-Visma but his ability and ambition meant the stars aligned for a move to UAE Team Emirates.
“I’m not entirely responsible for the decision but I took the decision to change teams,” Bennett reveals.
“You also see that as much as you play a role and help the team, you’re also very dispensable, that’s the nature of the sport. The good work you do can be quickly forgotten. It’s not done in a bad way, I’m not sour about anything, it’s just that this sport and performance, in general, is so forward-looking rather than looking back.”
Now 31-years-old and after seven seasons at Jumbo-Visma, Bennett also realised it was time for a change.
“It’s not just that UAE Team Emirates wanted or needed me, I also needed to shake things up,” Bennett admits.
“I lived outside my comfort zone when I was racing as an amateur in France, then for an Italian team and then a Dutch team. I need to get that feeling back to push myself. Sometimes it’s good to get a fresh eye on things with a fresh coach, a fresh nutritionist and a fresh biomechanic. I’ve learnt a lot from Jumbo-Visma so I’ve got a whole new level to explore and try out. Moving on is a good opportunity for growth.”
Keeping his personal ambitions alive
Bennett was welcomed into the UAE Team Emirates ranks during their recent get together in the UAE. He kept a low profile because due to UCI rules he is still under contract with Jumbo-Visma until December 31. However, he is already thinking about and working toward the 2022 season.
He will soon travel home to New Zealand, accepting strict quarantine – now cut to a minimum of 7 days – for two months at home but feels it is necessary for him to lay the foundations to a new chapter in his career.
He will no doubt play a super domestique role alongside Pogacar at the Tour de France but he is expected to do more than that.
Bennett is a trusted Grand Tour super domestique after riding 14 of them in his career but that makes it easy to forget he won the 2017 Tour of California, was eighth in the 2018 Giro d’Italia and second at the 2020 Il Lombardia.
“The team wants me to get results too. That was a big appeal for me moving to UAE Team Emirates,” Bennett says quickly, underlining his personal ambitions.
“Winning the Tour de France as part of a team excites me but I need personal ambition to keep the fire alive and keep me motivated especially after a roller coaster 2021.
Bennett won the New Zealand road race title at the start of the year but suffered a series of setbacks. “This year I couldn’t catch a break. It was the most frustrating season for a long time for me because I reached a high level but things then went wrong, left, right and centre,” he explains.
“I lost the New Zealand time trial championships by a quarter of a second. I won the road title which was great but then I crashed really hard at Paris-Nice and was super sick at the Volta a Catalunya and was at home after two days.
“I then froze at the Giro d’Italia and struggled to ride as I hoped. I got hit by a nasty rash when I went to the Tokyo Olympics and that wrecked my biggest personal goal of the year. I recovered and had ambitions for the end of season races but then crashed hard at the Giro dell’Emilia.”
The Giro d’Italia was a huge personal disappointment and perhaps damaged Jumbo-Visma’s faith in him.
He and Jumbo-Visma went into the race with ambitions of a GC result and a place in the top five. However, he suffered terribly in the rain and cold and was never in the picture when it came to climbing with the best riders in the race.
Fortunately, Bennett has not lost faith in his own ability and is hoping his move from Jumbo-Visma to UAE Team Emirates will help the fortunes of pro cycling turn his way.
“I know that no one owes me anything, results aren’t automatic, it’s down to me. But I still believe that if you do the right thing and buy enough tickets to the lottery, then you get the rewards,” he says.
“Sometimes you need some fresh eyes to identify your weaknesses. When you make changes you have to leave your ego at home, take some criticism and work on things with the right people. I’m hoping to keep my best form all the time and avoid the problems that cause my dips in form in 2021.
“You have to earn your place in the peloton and especially in a new team. I’m looking forward to that challenge at UAE Team Emirates.”