The Giro, George and Me

It’s been a week since the 104th Giro d’Italia concluded yet its after-image lingers on. I, like many other devoted cycling fans, am trying to readjust to life no longer revolving around five hours of dramatic racing every day for three weeks solid. Even the quiet days had their own unique way of working into your soul, what with the ever-changing spectacle of the Italian scenery rolling past, and the constantly shifting patchwork of stories that combined to weave an unforgettable narrative of sporting achievement at its finest.

I was effectively writing full time during the course of the race, fitting in watching the race and producing daily reports for TJV Supporters around my usual commitments, and whilst some days were a struggle (making a pancake-flat stage sound interesting) there were many others that inspired me, days when writing didn’t feel like work at all, but a necessary expression of pent-up emotion.

Although the reports necessarily centred around the exploits of Team Jumbo Visma, I’d like to think they were about more than just one team’s performance, but rather a select story from the wider picture; a zoomed-in view of just one of the many unfolding, contrasting, parallel narratives on offer as each rider’s individual race played out, and we, as fans, brought our own emotions and experiences of the race to that story.

It’s for that reason that I have decided to share a couple of my favourite pieces from the race here. The pieces I enjoyed writing the most weren’t always the easiest, but they were the ones where there was an emotional resonance to the day’s action, and for me, that emotional connection is everything. It’s why I love the sport and it’s why I do what I do.

Please check out these two reports for a flavour of the rollercoaster journey of hope and disappointment that I lived as the race progressed. Of course, the protagonist is one George N Bennett, whose ill-fated GC campaign took an early hit at the hands of inclement weather and didn’t get much better from there. But he was undeterred and focused on the opportunities that presented themselves, and as a devoted follower of the Kiwi champion I never gave up on him, either, as you will see from the below accounts…

Stage 8 – Foggia – Guardia Sanframondi (170km) – 15th May 2021

Prologue

Cast your mind back to 14th February, 2021. It’s Valentine’s Day. More importantly, it’s the New Zealand national road championships, and on a beautiful summers’ day in Cambridge, George Bennett sets out alongside his Jumbo Visma teammate Finn Fisher Black with the weight of expectation on his shoulders. He’s missed out on gold in the time trial by 0.7 seconds but that’s not where he’s expected to achieve; it’s here, on the road. He’s missed out on this title for the past ten years, through bad luck, injury or simply losing out to better riders on the day. The race starts; 174km stand between George and the right the wear the silver fern of his home nation on his back for the rest of the season.

And then it happens. Disaster strikes as the strong New Zealand team Black Spoke drive the peloton hard and George loses touch with the main group. To be dropped so early in the race could spell disaster for the Jumbo Visma man, who doesn’t have a full team around him like Black Spoke, or some of the other local teams. He has Finn Fisher Black though, a man who can pull across short distances like a train, as he’s proven, smashing the U23 time trial to take gold two days prior and obliterating the elite men’s time in the process. He works selflessly as a domestique to reunite George with the main bunch. George won’t let this go again. He has four chances in all on the course’s single climb, the French Pass; four chances to make a difference and break clear. Because he’s a climber; that’s what he does.

Hold that thought, as we return to the present to catch up with the day’s action at the Giro…

Stage 8

It was another warm, sunny day as the race reached its southernmost point in Italy. Rolling out of Foggia, the riders faced a punchy stage, reasonably short at 170km, and with no major changes in the GC after yesterday’s sprint stage, Jumbo Visma’s best placed rider was still Tobias Foss at 18th in the standings (George Bennett stands at 31st).

Breakonomics

Watching a breakaway form is fascinating. It’s a kind of organic process whereby riders break loose like they’re being shot at random from a cannon; they test, and are brought back, until the peloton somehow, collectively decides that the ‘right’ group of riders have moved away.

This Giro in particular has been favourable for the breakaway, with three winners coming from breakaways so far, and the unwritten rules surrounding who will go each day, particularly on a day like today, are undoubtedly complex. When the pressure is on, mistakes can be made, and the peloton have to be alert to any potential violation of these rules. Take today for example, when Egan Bernal found himself in the huge breakaway that attempted to pull clear early on in the stage, and he was immediately informed in no uncertain terms he should not be there; it would simply not do. And so it goes, and so it goes again, until eventually, something sticks.

Except today, it didn’t.

On a long straight road with crosswinds at times forcing the riders into echelons, chaos ensued. With the pace constantly high, it became less about which riders would form the breakaway, and more about trying to keep the race from splitting apart irrevocably. It was intense and at one point the split between the two groups was a concern for the pink jersey, as well as some significant names in the GC. Yet again, the fight to bring things under control succeeded, for a while.

In the end, it took over 60km and countless false starts for the breakaway to finally form and be released. The collective sigh of relief was almost palpable as the peloton, who had raced an average of 50kph over the first 50km of the race, were finally able to settle into a more relaxed pace. A further outcome was that the breakaway themselves were able to build a sizeable lead; comprised of nine men, they had amassed an impressive seven minutes by the time they hit the first categorised climb of the day, the cat 2 Bocca Della Selva.

The climb came and went without incident, as did the following 43km of descent, except for Fernando Gaviria who fell off and had to chase himself back onto the breakaway group, whose lead was looking unassailable.

Back in the peloton Groupama-FDJ controlled for the maglia rosa, Attilo Valter, and the other GC hopefuls remained attentive alongside them, yet after the exertions of the early part of the day, and with a serious foray into the mountains beckoning on tomorrow’s stage, no-one was inclined to attack.

Victor Campanearts, Giovanni Carboni and Alexis Gougeard all tried to go clear but ultimately, it was young Frenchman Victor Lafay who won the day with a well-timed attack on a split group of riders with nothing left to give, bringing glory to Cofidis after an 11-year dry spell at the Giro.

Kiwi Stealth Mode

He had some problems today, did our George. Early on in the race he was spotted (by me) being paced back onto the bunch after seemingly having been dropped. For all I know, it could have been a comfort break. But it set the nerves jangling. It wasn’t the only time he was to be distanced, suffering a mechanical with around 65km to go. Yet he was there at the finish with the main contenders, and didn’t lose any more time to the leaders. Sure, he’s currently giving away 8.55 to the pink jersey, and it doesn’t look good. But it didn’t look good that day back in February, in Cambridge…

Remember where we left him, back with the bunch in New Zealand, waiting for his chance to make it count? Let’s rewind once more…

Each climb he pushed and each climb he couldn’t quite make the difference. Ironically, he finally broke clear of the group on the flat, with just 8km remaining in the race. When they least expected it. When he rode over that line to claim the victory he did it alone, and he did it by digging deep, just as he did last year in Gran Piemonte. And the victory was sweet, because it was hard fought, and because it was a long time coming.

So what’s the connection, I hear you ask?

It’s like the Giro in miniature: it’s early days, and George is in the weeds. He’s struggling and as far as his rivals are concerned, he’s done. I can’t claim to have any idea what’s going through George’s head at this stage in the proceedings but I sure as hell know he’s not giving this up without a fight. Whatever stubborn streak has kept George going through adversity time and time again throughout his career, it will kick in at some point. He’s come back from worse than this. Maybe not to win, but to survive. He’s fought for others and he’ll fight for his chance to stay with the best. He’s wearing the fern on his back that he won, striking out alone on the roads of New Zealand, and he can use it to his advantage.

He can hide.

He’s not wearing the bright yellow and black target that the others are used to seeing. He can slip through unnoticed, like a Kiwi ninja, and steal back seconds, maybe minutes. Let the sun shine, and our George will have his day.

They won’t see him coming. They don’t see him as a threat. And they sure as hell don’t know what he’s capable of yet. Perhaps he doesn’t even know himself. But there’s no way I’m giving up on him after a few early setbacks. Can you all say the same? Can it be possible to hang on to a shred of hope, for a while longer? Can we all agree to engage Kiwi stealth mode, and will George (quietly) up the mountains tomorrow, and over the next two weeks, and who knows… with luck (and some ninja skills) it might not be over, just yet.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

Stage 14 – Cittadella – Monte Zoncolan (205km) – 22nd May 2021

Today, of all days, can I ask a favour of you, dear readers? Can we dispense with the formalities and cut to the chase, please? It’s been a hell of a day for all of us.

So bring to mind, if you will, the image of Edoardo Affini.  He’s 186km into a race where he’s gone all out for his team mate George Bennett. He’s working on the front of what remains of the breakaway, eleven men, heading into the hardest climb of the Giro d’Italia so far. 19km to go and he’s emptying the tank, his face stretched into a grimace, teeth bared, the body that has held solid for four hours in the saddle starting to rock. Yesterday, he saluted fans in his home town, then in the final, was metres away from his own stage victory. Today, he uses up every shred of himself in service of his team mate.

That’s where we are, right now, the fans of this team. We’ve made it two thirds of the way through a grand tour which has been notable for its disappointments more than its successes. And it’s hard to take. We’ve seen our boys fight in the GC, in the sprints, and in the breakaway, and so far, they have not had to chance to raise their arms, and we are suffering with them.

Still, Edoardo doesn’t give in. He sticks it out through the pain for another 5km. Finally, the gradient kicks up as the group begins the ascent of the Zoncolan, and he peels off, almost coming to a standstill. With 13.8km to go his day is done and he sends George Bennett on his way. We don’t see him again until much later when the peloton passes him by, as he drags himself gradually to the summit alongside Jacopo Mosca, Bauke Mollema’s support rider.

That’s us, people. We have given our all. We’ve poured out our support just as Edoardo Affini has done for his team mate. And this team mate, George Bennett, has done the same for others time and time again in the past few years, and now it’s his turn in the spotlight. He’s been in the breakaway a number of times, and today faces the sternest test of the Giro so far in the form of the formidable Monte Zoncolan. A peak which defeated him back in 2018, when he had a mechanical going up the more popular Ovaro route. A score to settle, and a point to prove to his doubters, after he came so close two days ago on stage 12.

He keeps his legs moving. He turns the pedals. He climbs. With 11.3km to go he is digging deep, at the front of the group, jaw set, fighting the mountain. Just 200m later, Bahrain-Victorious’ Jan Tratnik goes. His face is a mask; it’s easy, or perhaps he’s a master of deception. But he goes. Will he stay the course, or blow up before the line? Next to go is Eolo Kometa’s Lorenzo Fortunato. He’s riding in his first Grand Tour, and as he stands up and sets off in pursuit of Tratnik, it’s clear he’s feeling good.

George, along with Bauke Mollema, Alessandro Covi, and Nelson Oliveira, keep up their pursuit; yet the gap does not reduce. Behind, the peloton are gathering speed, shedding those who are not in it for the long haul. Jumbo Visma’s Tobias Foss and Koen Bouwman are still among their number.

And so back to us, the fans. Those who go through every agonising kilometre as if we are riding it ourselves. We keep watching, with our hearts in our mouths, biting our nails, hoping. Always hoping. Tratnik ploughs on. Fortunato catches him, and the two work together for a while. Still, either one could blow up as the altitude gathers rapidly. Is it over? Never. It’s never over. If you stop hoping, you might as well turn off the TV because cycling is not for you. Behind, the maglia rosa looked secure on the wheel of his everlasting chain of domestiques, while Aleksandr Vlasov reaped the rewards of his team working from the front all day. Yet in climbing terms, there was still an eternity to go.

It’s not as though George didn’t look good. He looked great. The other three riders with him looked good too; testament to their confidence that the breakaway that they had committed to so long ago still remained clear of the peloton. Yet the two ahead eked out their lead with the distance to the finish line trickling down. Time was almost up.

With 2.3km to go UAE’s Covi broke free, around the same time that up ahead, Tratnik blew. Back in the peloton, it seemed impossible to believe that Egan Bernal still had two domestiques working in front of him and had barely begun to work yet. With 0.9km to go at the front of the race, Simon Yates finally stuck his head into the wind and had a dig. Yates was the pre-race favourite for many but for perspective, fourteen days of racing have passed and he’s been invisible.

He works but Bernal goes with him. Behind front-runner Fortunato, the somewhat revived figure of Jan Tratnik looms. Still nothing is certain and it reminds us how decisive these gruelling climbs can be. But into the mist Fortunato rides, staying strong enough to sit up and raise his arms over the line, snatching the first grand tour victory for Alberto Contador’s Eolo Kometa and continuing the incredible run of unexpected wins of this Giro.

With just a few hundred metres to go Bernal powers away from Yates to finally launch his own attack for home, once again affirming his dominance in the GC contest. He passes George on his way. George finishes in 7th and gains a few places in the GC. Tobias Foss, who we haven’t seen for some time and must have been dropped on the final, loses a few to fall to 11th spot with a five-minute deficit.  Koen Bouwman is 21st with a creditable performance too.

What can we take from all this? Like Edoardo Affini, we pour our souls into the pursuit of glory, and also like Affini, the final result is completely out of our hands. Like George Bennett, we endure. We keep going, despite the pain and the inevitability of the outcome, and the uncertainty of how others riders in other teams are feeling, or might react. Despite all this, we stay strong ready for another day of battle. Tomorrow is another day of battle. Be proud of what the boys have achieved and steel yourselves for more disappointment. And if, just if, the unthinkable happens, and we have a win to celebrate at some point between now and next week’s arrival in Milan, it will be so, so sweet.

*

It wasn’t to be, in the end. The closer the race drew to the final stages, the more intense the GC battle became, and hunting for stage wins was cancelled out. I wanted so much more for George, who has spoken about the race since, acknowledging it was the biggest opportunity of his career and to lose out because of the weather was incredibly difficult to take. Who knows what the future holds; the Olympics is the next goal for New Zealand’s finest and then the question of his future at Jumbo Visma will be answered, as his contract expires this year.

His performance at the Giro might feel like an anti-climax but it comes off the back of his most successful season as a pro, winning Gran Piemonte and coming second in Il Lombardia, before assisting Primoz Roglic in his defence of the Vuelta and then beginning this year by taking the victory his national championships. George is a valuable domestique, a brilliant climber and a smart and experienced team player and he undoubtedly has more to give; where he will be at the end of the year is unclear, but I don’t plan on getting off the rollercoaster anytime soon.

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