The first Grand Tour of the cycling calendar – the Giro d'Italia - gets underway next Friday, and for the first time, a New Zealand rider will be a legitimate contender.
George Bennett will lead his LottoNL-Jumbo team at the Giro, and is a chance to make New Zealand cycling history. Niall Anderson runs through all the key questions for the race.
I only follow the Tour de France. Why should I care about the Giro?
While the Tour is undoubtedly the pinnacle of world cycling, the gap between it and the other Grand Tours, including the Giro, isn't as wide as it may seem. The Giro has a world class field, and could actually be a more exciting and attacking race, if the riders have the right incentive and initiative. And of course, Bennett could be right in the mix of the excitement.
Alright, what are Bennett's chances in this race?
His recent form bodes well – he's finished 11th, ninth, sixth and fifth in his four stage races this season. All of those races have seen him go up against the best climbers in the world, and by and large he held his own. He's a notch below the big favourites for the tour, but if he rides well, he should find himself in the thick of things.
Who are his main rivals?
The two favourites are Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin. Froome is the four-time Tour de France champion, while Dumoulin is the defending Giro champion. The pair are good enough to hang with the quickest climbers, and likely to gain plenty of time on their rivals in the time trials. The other contenders include Colombian attacker Miguel Angel Lopez, and French climber Thibaut Pinot, while Bennett falls into the next tier.
So if he won't win the title, why should us frontrunners bother following?
Well, he might win a stage! It's a big ask, considering he's never won a stage in his professional career, but he finished second on the final two stages of the Tour of the Alps last week, and with 11 uphill finishes on the docket for the Giro, it bodes well for the Kiwi climber.
Is that the history you're talking about?
Part of it - no New Zealand rider has ever won an individual stage at the Giro, and Bennett should be there or thereabouts for most of the uphill finishes. However – barring the sickness which hit him at last year's Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana – he will be a top 10 contender, and no Kiwi has ever finished in the top 30 on the general classification at the Giro. Additionally, he's a chance to beat his (and New Zealand's) best ever finish in a Grand Tour – his 10th place at the Vuelta in 2016.
Impressive. Why is this not a bigger deal?
Well, world cycling is a tough sport to follow in New Zealand. Nearly every major overseas race finishes between 2-5am, so unless you work night shifts, suffer from insomnia, or are a general cycling tragic, it's hard to get too involved in the race. As a result, it's near impossible to gain the public's full attention.
The drug scandals probably don't help either, right?
How very presumptuous of you to assume there's a drug scandal! However, in this case, there's a fairly major one – Chris Froome tested positive for excess levels of salbutamol at the Vuelta last year, and his case has still not been resolved. He is continuing to race, but there could be a situation where he wins the Giro, then gets it retroactively stripped if he is then suspended. It could get messy.
What a shambles. So, when does the race get underway in Italy?
It gets underway on Friday night, with a 9.7 kilometre prologue. But, actually, the race starts in Israel-
Yeah. It's caused a bit of controversy, with a lobbying group trying to stage a boycott of the race due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the first three races will go ahead in Israel, albeit with the route carefully avoiding the Palestinian territories.
Ok, let's finish with a bold prediction. Where does Bennett finish?
I have Bennett pegged as the eighth best rider in the field, and frankly, if he doesn't get sick or get caught in a crash (always possible), I think he is nearly a lock for the top 10 – and New Zealand's best ever Grand Tour result.