George Bennett’s missing ribs and Olympic hopes

ADELAIDE, Australia (CT) – George Bennett’s 2019 season ended in an unconventional spot: under a surgeon’s scalpel, with his chest being sliced open in a bid to revitalise his career.

But three months after that invasive procedure, at the beginning of a crucial season, Bennett finds himself in more familiar territory: hoping that the excruciating stitch that has handicapped his performance in recent years will resolve.

If it does, Bennett hopes, it might unlock the results that have at times hovered out of reach.

Over his six seasons at Jumbo-Visma, the likeable New Zealander has developed into one of the best super-domestiques in the sport. Uncaged, he’s also shown flashes of brilliance, notching a win at Amgen Tour of California in 2017 and following it with a top 10 on the Giro d’Italia GC in 2018.

Jumbo-Visma has more strings to its bow than just George Bennett, though, and his most recent Grand Tour appearances have seen him in the supporting cast, rather than a starring role.

The 2019 Tour de France was a torrid one for Bennett. Two hard crashes in one hard day left him bloodied and bruised, but he pushed through to Paris, where Steven Kruijswijk finished on the podium and George Bennett pedalled gingerly across the cobbles of the Champs Elysees, a long shadow in the golden sunset, two and a half minutes off the back of the peloton.

A month later, at the Vuelta, Bennett was a key component of Primoz Roglic’s debut grand tour victory, having battled through illness and several crashes to help deliver the Slovenian to the top step.

By year’s end, Bennett had shown a lot of grit, but not much else. “There’s still no results chalked up to my name… I left [2019] without having my own breakthrough,” he reflected later.

There was something holding George Bennett back.

In moments of extreme exertion – efforts consistent with, say, being one of the best super-domestiques in the sport – Bennett was unravelled by agonising side stitches.

The condition was diagnosed as ‘floating rib syndrome’ – a rare condition that occurs when the cartilage in the lower ribs moves and slips – and it acted as a ceiling on top of Bennett’s full potential. “I don’t struggle to find the passion for [cycling], but it’s not sustainable when every time you go hard you feel a knife in your stomach,” Bennett said.

Over the years, Bennett and his team searched for a solution – a path that led him down the route of exploratory surgeries, each of which raised hopes, and then dashed them.

Bennett was running short on options, but there was one “drastic measure” up his sleeve. And so, after Il Lombardia, Bennett went under the knife again.

This time, the surgeon removed three ribs.

It was a calculated risk. As he explained in the weeks after the operation, “we sat down, talked with the family and my girlfriend, and decided that I’m not halfway through my career and that my best years are still ahead of me. I want to be able to make the most of it. If this works it will open up a lot more doors for me. I back off in training – not just racing – because of this, so we’ll see how this goes.”

Two months later, straddling his Bianchi Oltre next to a Jumbo-Visma van in Unley, Bennett told CyclingTips that his recovery remained uncertain.

“It’s still giving me a bit of grief – the same issue – but it’s too early to tell if it has been successful,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It’s still really fired up, and a lot of inflammation, a lot of nerve damage in there. That’ll take a while to settle down.” He won’t know until Paris-Nice, his doctors reckon, whether it worked or not.

George Bennett is a scrappy rider – whippet lean, almost delicate in his build – with a distinctive pedal stroke and a quick wit. He’s generous in the way he leaves it all on the road; he doesn’t leave a lot off the table in his interviews either, whether it’s telling you how he feels or who his rivals are.

At Thursday’s stage start, Bennett predicted that “[Richie Porte] would probably piss off at the bottom and we’ll fight over the scraps”. At Thursday’s stage finish, having been gapped by Porte (tick) and fighting hard for 9th on the stage (tick), Bennett was frank in his self-assessment. “I was hoping I’d be a bit better than that,” he said, still breathing heavily from the effort, his jersey unzipped and faint blue-white lines of scar tissue accenting the base of his ribcage.

There’s a lot riding on the upcoming season for Bennett, and the loyal lieutenant is chasing his own ambitions again. The Kiwi’s first major target is another run at the Giro, with the team splitting duties between GC with Bennett and stage wins with Dylan Groenewegen. That will be followed by the road race at the Tokyo Olympics, which features a hilly parcours that Bennett admits is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

Pursuing that goal comes with some compromises. His targeting of Tokyo is, Bennett says, a key reason that he will now be sitting out the Tour de France.

“We sat down with the team, and they said ‘if you want to be good at the Olympics, then the Tour is not really an option’. You’re only gonna have five days, six days maybe, to get to Japan, acclimatise, recover from the Tour, get over the jetlag… it’s not gonna happen, ya know?”

From Jumbo-Visma’s perspective, it probably helps that the team’s lineup has crystallised into a powerhouse squad, with a stacked roster of talented riders capable of taking the fight to the likes of Team Ineos. If 2019 was the Dutch squad’s breakthrough, they only look more ominous in 2020 following the arrival of Tom Dumoulin.

Success breeds confidence. Before 2019 was even complete Jumbo-Visma had made the audacious move of announcing their full 2020 Tour lineup seven months before the fact, structured around a ‘trident’ of Roglic, Dumoulin and Kruijswijk.

That power-play seemed calibrated to rattle Ineos, although Bennett himself says it’s simplistic to present things as a binary Jumbo-Visma vs. Team Ineos tussle.

“I think everyone likes to sort of play that narrative, but there’s still a lot of other good teams. It’s a pretty fragile balance and it doesn’t take much for something to go wrong either way. There’s no way we only have to worry about Ineos,” he said, smiling gently. “I don’t like to pigeonhole it like that.”

Besides: those are questions for May, and July, and August, when Jumbo-Visma will take on the best in the sport and hope that they’re better.

For now, George Bennett has more immediate concerns, like the metre-by-metre immediacy of surfing the nervous energy of a bike race in the beginning of a season that could end with success at the Giro and glory at the Olympics, or could end with a knife back in his side.

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