A pair of New Zealand Tour de France veterans have lauded George Bennett's performance in this year's event, and sympathised with the Team Lotto NL-Jumbo rider's decision to withdraw due to illness on stage 16.

Tino Tabak competed in Le Tour four times. His 18th place in 1972 remains the best finish of the 15 New Zealanders to contest the event since Harry Watson's 1928 debut.

Stephen Swart featured three times in cycling's most famous race and was the Herald's New Zealander Of The Year in 2012 for his courage speaking out against former teammate Lance Armstrong's systemic doping.

"I was similar to George in my first tour [1971]," Tabak said. "I was 5th or 6th on general classification at the time, but did the wrong thing and got sick.


"On the [first] rest day, the media wanted to take photos of me on the beach. I did that, then decided to walk back to my hotel. I got an ice cream on the way, and three or four hours later I was crook. It was an absolute fever, you name it.

"I ended up getting to the top of the Puy de Dome [on stage eight] but then had to go home."

Swart pulled out at a similar point to Bennett on his maiden tour in 1987.

"I can sympathise with him. When the tank's empty and there's nobody home, there's nothing you can do.

"George hasn't just been a part of this tour, he's been contributing in the top echelon. That will add to the intensity of his experience, and the disappointment.

"To have a Kiwi in the top 10 as a contender is a breakthrough on its own merit, even though he can't see it all the way to Paris. Who knows? Next year he might come back stronger."

Tabak said the memory of exiting the tour prematurely can gnaw away.

"It wasn't until I got home that I started to realise I probably missed out on a good placing.

"George's capable of doing something big. A lot of pro riders talk the business, I call them "the gunners"; going to do this, going to do that; but he doesn't say too much and just goes out and does his thing. I've got a lot of respect for that.

"What he's done is pretty amazing so far, but he needs to be careful getting advice from too many people because plenty of them won't have raced the Tour de France."

Bennett sat in 12th before his exit. A fever left him with little energy to complete the 165km stage from Le Puy-en-Velay to Romans-sur-Isère.

"I don't think my vocabulary's extensive enough to describe it. I'm absolutely devastated," he told Radio Sport.

"I was hoping for a miracle, hoping I could just get through... and pull something out in the Alps.

"There's no worse feeling for a cyclist than leaving a bike race - but leaving the Tour is the worst."

Bennett said he started feeling tired on stage 14 into Rodez and got worse during stage 15.

"I had a bit of a fever, but nothing serious. I suffered that day, but made the group with the 10 best guys in the race so I wasn't panicking.

"Then, on the rest day after lunch, it hit me. I spent the day in bed... and I couldn't eat or drink. They made my dinner in a blender and I tried to get in as much food as I could. I woke up and the fever had gone.

"We started the first climb and we hoped a few guys would roll off easy and I could survive, but it didn't work out like that. It turned into an absolute battle and I was on the wrong end of it."

Bennett's maiden appearance in Le Tour came last year when he finished 53rd. Before this edition he had ridden five grand tours across France, Spain and Italy.