At last, New Zealand has the type of cyclist who might one day win the Tour de France. On the eve of the start of the 104th edition, George Bennett talks about fear, food and ambition.
To contend for the yellow jersey in the world's greatest bicycle race a rider must be able to climb, time-trial and endure a physical and mental inquisition lasting three weeks. He needs passion to match ambition.
Nine years ago, a slim 18-year-old waved goodbye to his parents in the Aniseed Valley near Nelson and flew to Switzerland.
"That's where I had a connection through a New Zealand guy," explained George Bennett by phone from Girona, the Spanish city he has made his home with his partner, artist and runner Caitlin Fielder.
Somewhere to stay, a team to race with had been arranged. But Bennett arrived in Geneva to sobering news from his contact.
"The roads were covered in snow and I was wondering how I was going to ride in it," recalled Bennett, "and then he told me there was no bike team and I'd be staying in this little town with this older guy who didn't speak English and who only had relationships with younger guys!"
"Actually, he turned out to be really nice but there was no team, no internet. I had to take the train to races. That was the hardest few months of my life. I mean, I couldn't go back home empty-handed. You grow up pretty fast, that's for sure."
Somehow Bennett won a race and was picked up by a French amateur team and soon after by a bigger outfit.
His break into the professional scene came in 2012 with the development squad of American team RadioShack-Nissan. His breakthrough season was last year, crowned by placing 10th overall in the Vuelta a Espana, one of the world's big three tours.
Bennett became the first Kiwi to make the top 10 overall in a Grand Tour (France, Italy and Spain). The highest placed New Zealander in the Tour de France, for example, is 18th by Cantabrian Tino Tabak 45 years ago.
It was during the Spanish tour that Bennett realised he belonged with the best. "We were ripping up a hill and on one side I had Froome and on the other side I had Contador and Quintana. The three best riders in the world, and we were in a group of 12, the last guys left."
Chris Froome is aiming for his fourth win in the race the French call La Grand Boucle. Veteran Spaniard, Alberto Contador has won it twice while brilliant Colombian climber Nairo Quintana needs it to complete his set of Grand Tour victories.
Bennett had found himself in a similar position a couple of months earlier, right there in the final shootout of the Queen mountain stage of the 2016 Tour de France. He faded slightly at the death but still finished an impressive seventh.
"That's what I'm missing, that last few Ks," he told the Herald on the eve of his final pre-Tour block of altitude training. "It may be just another year, another altitude camp. It's not a huge step to take but it is such a difficult one."
"Once I can make that junction, I can be a true GC contender."
He was answering a question about whether he saw himself as a climber or a General Classification rider, those rare birds with the blend of talents needed for overall victory in the big tours.
At 27, time is an ally. And he can take heart from his trajectory. In May, he took another step, winning the Tour of California, the first New Zealander to win a World Tour event.
The field wasn't as deep as key European lead-up races to the Tour de France, but the rider Bennett relegated to second was Rafal Majka, winner of the King of the Mountains in last year's Tour de France.
With his shock of hair, broad grin and laid-back demeanour, Bennett has the look of a hipster to go with a his Kiwi wit.
He can speak Spanish, French, Italian and Dutch but hasn't lost his Kiwi vernacular. Here he was telling media how he realised after his great ride in the time trial that he'd taken the lead in California: "At the finish, all the cameras came, and I said, 'Shit I must have done something good.' Nek minnit I'm in the yellow jersey!"
His plan after that big win, he told the Herald, was to stay humble. "You see guys win a race and start saying they are going to win the Tour de France. I'm not going to put a number on it.
"The truth is I don't know because I am actually surprising myself with how fast the progression has been in the last two years. You step through from where you are in the front group to suddenly you are in the results sheets.
"I don't know if I can continue making the same steps. Sure I would love to challenge for a Grand Tour but it's hard to know."
Most Grand Tour winners were freaks from the age of 15, he noted, which is why he likes Tom Dumoulin, winner of Giro d'Italia in May. Dumoulin was a good rider who steadily improved.
"I take a lot of inspiration from guys like that."
The back story
Bennett started mountain biking with a few mates. "I wasn't that good but I slowly got better."
The bike was to boost rugby fitness. He played from age 5, wanted to be an All Black; "the standard thing growing up in New Zealand."
At 1.80m and 58kg, Bennett barely casts a shadow. "Cycling will do that to you. Cyclists probably have stronger legs than anyone but ask us to pick something up and we're in trouble."
"I did a big race when I was 14, the Rainbow Rage [an endurance trek through the Rainbow Valley that straddles Marlborough and Canterbury] and started doing more of that sort of thing."
Those early cycling mates got distracted by "the brown fizzy stuff and the girls". Bennett rode on and learnt the satisfaction of achieving an epic challenge from 2004 Olympian Robin Reid, famous in the region for riding up Takaka Hill 21 times just to show he could.
"One time we took off early and rode full gas for 300km," Bennett recalled. "Robin liked to take it to the next step. That was awesome to learn from and I just loved riding, loved adventures."
Bennett showed unusual discipline to earn a black belt in karate at a tender age but the origin of his competitive instinct is a puzzle to his family. "It certainly doesn't come from us, his parents," laughs Paul Bennett.
He and George's mother, Marina, are retired deputy school principals who let their children pursue their own interests. One child is an RAF pilot, another a vet, a third is a primary school principal and a fourth is a doctor of marine biology.
When their youngest went to Switzerland to seek his fortune they worried it would end in disappointment.
"Of course," says Paul, "but you don't say it. They chose their own direction and you as parents support that. And George has the attributes. He's very determined, focused. There's an element of stubbornness - he's just not going to be beaten."
Bennett is on the fringe of the small group of skeletal athletes able to fight for the yellow jersey. But his team, LottoNL-Jumbo, have declared they will chase stage wins rather than a high placing overall.
That means Bennett will probably be under orders to lose a big chunk of time in the first week.
The conundrum goes like this: it would be most unlikely that he could get in a successful breakaway (his best chance of a stage win) while he was a danger overall because the domestiques who work for the stars would ride the break down to protect the interests of their leaders.
An individual stage win would be historic. Jack Bauer came close in 2014, swamped by the sprinters metres from the line after a 222km breakaway.
"It is hard to say what warrants riding for the overall classification," said Bennett. "If you get 15th in the Tour de France, that's an amazing result, for me personally and it would be a huge thing for New Zealand. But for the team and the sponsors,15th in the overall without a stage win is well . . . the team has had very high placings before."
"If I become a marked man and I have to lose half an hour one day, then I will just have to do it."
But, he said, you never know what might happen. It takes luck to break through but you also have to be ready when luck calls. "Some guys don't train for it."
"I'm ready to work really, really hard and I'm excited for it. You always dream in cycling."
Bennett burns up to 7000 calories on a mountain stage, enough to fuel an average person's activity for two to four days. Here's his dietary plan.
Breakfast: 1500 calories of carbohydrates, white rice, eggs, olive oil.
During race: Energy drinks, bars and gels.
At finish: Recovery shake.
After showering, spaghetti bolognaise.
Evening: Large meal with red or white meat.
"It's a lot of food. I'm full to the brim and I hate it. If I ate like that out of racing, I wouldn't be so skinny, that's for sure."
What they earn
Bennett: "The real big guys [Peter Sagan, Chris Froome] are on 4-5 million euros a year. Then there is a big step down to the potential winners who have made one really big result. They can push near a million.
"A top worker who can also win the odd race hits between 200,000 to 300,000. And then there is the bulk of us earning between 70,000 and 120,000.
"There is a massive variation in pay packets. The helpers help the really good guys get even richer. Luckily we don't do it for the money!"
"I didn't know what to expect coming into the sport and then I heard all these jaded pros telling some pretty dubious stories. At times it was pretty disheartening when guys you thought were clean would go positive and you'd think, 'shit, it's still happening.
I still think there are probably people pushing the limits . . . TUE exemptions, like [Bradley] Wiggins. To me that's bullshit. Things need to change around therapeutic use [of banned substances].
What is super-encouraging for me is I'm part of this young generation that suddenly across the board, the guys who are good have always been good and now they are winning races."
There were not the "unbelievable and sudden improvements" and Bennett notes it is also encouraging that major climbs in the Giro this year were about three minutes slower than 20 years ago when dominated by Marco Pantani who died of a drug overdose in 2004.
"My admiration is not necessarily for the strongest guys but the guys who I know how they operate and because of their selflessness. Guys like [Rotorua-born] Sam Bewley. I think he is one of the best domestiques in the world and he does it all without getting public credit."
Kiwis at the Tour de France:
This year: George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Patrick Bevin (Cannondale-Drapac), Jack Bauer (Quick-Step Floors), Dion Smith (Wanty-Groupe Gobert).
No New Zealander has won an individual stage.
Chris Jenner (2001, Credit Agricole) and Julian Dean, (2011, Garmin Cervelo) were in the winning team in Teams Time Trial stages.
Our highest-placed Tour rider was Tino Tabak, 18th overall in 1972.
The first was Harry Watson, who in 1928 was part of a four-man 'down-under' team.
Other Kiwi participants: Paul Jesson, Eric McKenzie, Nathan Dahlberg, Stephen Swart, Hayden Roulston, Julian Dean, Greg Henderson.