Could Tour de France cycling star George Bennett be New Zealand's best athlete?

That's a huge can of worms to open up, but Kiwi cycling legend Julian Dean has taken to social media with his views, after Bennett climbed another spot to ninth the Tour's general classification this morning.

The Nelsonian hung with the race favourites until the final metres of a stage that many considered the toughest of this year's event. The 214.5km journey into the Pyrenees certainly shook up the field, with Italian Fabio Aru snatching the yellow jersey from three-time defending champion Chris Froome.

Four minutes 24 seconds behind Aru, Bennett is poised to record New Zealand's highest ever placing in the classic - Tino Tabak finished 18th in 1972 - a performance that should see him elevated into the top echelon of riders around the world.


Late last year, he achieved a top-10 finish in the prestigious Vuelta a España and then broke through with victory at the Tour of California last month.

"I will put it out there that George Bennett is NZ top athlete with his performances last 12 months and now Le Tour 2017," Dean tweeted earlier this week.

And he should know, having carved his own piece of Tour history over seven attempts at the event. Dean won a stage as part of the Garmin-Cervelo team time trial in 2011, having finished second twice on individual stages the previous year.

In 2009, he was the only rider to finish all three grand tours (France, Italy and Spain) and was shot in the hand with an air rifle on the French 13th stage.

In 2010, he had Briton Mark Renshaw thrown out of the race for head-butting near the finish of Stage 11.

"It certainly makes me immensely proud to see George in that position," Dean told Fairfax Media, comparing Bennett to recent All Blacks stars Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.

"One of the things people don't understand is how big cycling is, as a sport. It's truly a global sport and many of our sports that we hold so dearly in New Zealand are only sports that a few countries in the world participate in.

"Cycling is certainly not like that."

But is Bennett a superior athlete to McCaw or Carter in their prime, or all our current All Blacks? Better than our increasingly athletic America's Cup sailors? Grand Slam tennis champion Michael Venus, or our world-class rowers or paddlers?

That's a tough comparison to make, but if he can stay on his bike for another 10 days, we may soon be able to celebrate him as our greatest ever road cyclist ...