Five New Zealand cyclists will be on the startline when the Vuelta a Espana gets underway on Sunday morning – a new record for the most Kiwis riding in a Grand Tour.

It is also the only Grand Tour where a New Zealander has won an individual stage, via Paul Jesson (1980) and Greg Henderson (2009). 10 years on, can another Kiwi cyclist add their name to an exclusive club?

Here are the things you need to know – and a hell of a lot of inane babble that you probably don't – about the Kiwi quintet lining up in Spain.

George Bennett

George Bennett. Photo / Photosport
George Bennett. Photo / Photosport

What's his deal?

Advertisement

Surely you're not clicking on this incredibly niche story unless you know about George Bennett, but, anyways, Bennett is New Zealand's premier cyclist, holding the New Zealand record for best results in a Grand Tour (eighth at the Giro, and 10th at the Vuelta). However, he is still lacking a professional stage win on his resume, with his biggest title – the 2017 Tour of California – coming without winning an individual stage.

Has he done much this year?

Bennett has had a mixed season. He rode well to claim sixth at Paris-Nice, but had a shocker in the terrible weather at the Tour of the Basque Country, finishing a disappointing 22nd. He couldn't repeat his Tour of California success, finishing in fourth as he was usurped by the young guns, but looked in strong form at the Tour de France, sitting in fourth through nine stages, and even having an outside chance at claiming the yellow jersey, until Julian Alaphilippe took over the race. A communications calamity to send him back to fetch drinks saw his chances of a decent GC result disappear on stage 10 as he lost 10 minutes in the crosswinds, but Bennett proved excellent support for Steven Kruijswijk, helping him to third overall.

So what's he gonna do at the Vuelta?

The Tour-Vuelta double is always tough, and Bennett's role has changed slightly. Initially meant to be a leader or co-leader, his Jumbo-Visma team have now decided to send Primoz Roglic to the race, as well as Kruijswijk, with Roglic favoured to win the Vuelta, and Kruijswijk ranking fourth with the bookmakers. While Bennett will still have semi-protected status, unless one of the aforementioned duo crash or struggle, Bennett is likely going to have to ride in service of them in the mountains, meaning his chances of a top GC finish will fade.

As it so happens, this year's field is a bit weaker than usual, meaning Bennett would have been a legitimate top 10 chance had he been given sole leadership, but now with Jumbo-Visma bringing Dutch star Tom Dumoulin on board from next season, he's unlikely to get sole leadership in a Grand Tour during the remainder of his time with the Dutch squad. No team has placed three riders in the top 10 of the Vuelta since 2004, but with the race starting with a Team Time Trial, Bennett could find himself high on the GC for a second straight Grand Tour, and potentially be in the mix for the leader's red jersey during the early stages.

Can he win a stage?

That depends ... If Bennett is less of a GC threat, then yes – he might be allowed up the road with a late attack. (Cycling is weird where sometimes the worse you perform in a tour, the more likely you are to win a stage). Similarly, if he loses time as result of being on teammate duties, he could be allowed in the breakaway to hunt stages. He didn't take that option at the Tour de France, but with Kruijswijk to support Roglic, Bennett could be used as a good foil up the road – and go for the stage win on one of many of the uphill finishes. If Jumbo-Visma are leading the race though, then Bennett better get ready to work on the front, and ignore his individual ambitions.

Advertisement

Patrick Bevin

Patrick Bevin wins a stage of the Tour Down Under. Photo / Photosport
Patrick Bevin wins a stage of the Tour Down Under. Photo / Photosport

What's his deal?

An excellent all-round rider specialising in the time trial but also able to contest an uphill sprint finish, Bevin is the most likely New Zealand rider to win World Tour stages.

Has he done much this year?

He started off with a roar, winning the New Zealand time trial championships, and then winning the second stage of the Tour Down Under, stunning the likes of Caleb Ewan, Peter Sagan and Elia Viviani in an uphill sprint to become the first Kiwi to win a World Tour stage since 2011. That saw Bevin nearly win the Tour Down Under overall, before a crash on the penultimate stage ruined his hopes, and Daryl Impey took the overall title.

That crash – and several others that followed – has led to a largely disjointed year. Bevin has had to abandon three races, including the Tour de France with fractured ribs, and it has also played a part in some underwhelming time trial results, failing to earn a podium finish in his favoured discipline. Even while not at his best, he's still taken 15 top-10 finishes across his races this season, aided by being one of the few top-tier riders on his CCC squad.

So what's he gonna do at the Vuelta?

Bevin is first and foremost targeting the time trial on stage 10 – a lumpy course that would suit him relatively well. After that, his chances will most likely come on slight uphill finishes, or reduced bunch sprints after stages with tough climbs that could jettison the pure sprinters. He won't bother with the bunch sprints on flat stages – 21-year-old Pole Szymon Sajnok is CCC's man for those – but Bevin will also likely aim to be in the breakaway, and has shown some impressive climbing legs which indicate he could claim some quality results on stages where the climbs aren't too long or too steep.

Can he win a stage?

He's New Zealand's best hope – and the bookmakers have him at $3.50 to do so, the shortest odds I've seen for a Kiwi rider at a Grand Tour. He's aided by the fact that a lot of the world's best time trialists aren't competing at the Vuelta, but the presence of Roglic on a course that should suit him means that if the Slovenian is at his best, nobody will be getting close to him.

However, that's not Bevin's only chance, and I look forward to the same bookmakers rating Bevin as a top-10 favourite for any lumpy stage or slightly uphill finish, luring me to stay up watching until 4.00am on the off chance he does add to New Zealand's Vuelta history.

Dion Smith

Dion Smith, probably riding Michael Morkov off his wheel, amirite? Photo / Getty
Dion Smith, probably riding Michael Morkov off his wheel, amirite? Photo / Getty

What's his deal?

New Zealand's best classics rider – at least until Sam Gaze becomes a full-time road rider – Smith held the King of the Mountains jersey for a few days last year at the Tour de France. A good all-round rider, and a quick finisher in a small group or reduced bunch sprint, Smith has had fewer opportunities to ride for himself this year, his first at the World Tour level with Mitchelton-Scott.

Has he done much this year?

Smith took second at a stage of the Herald Sun Tour, but was incredibly impressive in claiming fourth on a hilly final stage at the Volta a Catalunya. On that stage, Davide Formolo claimed a superb solo victory, and Enric Mas and Max Schachmann attacked late to finish second and third. Then, leading home the elite group of riders remaining was Smith – finishing in a group with Alejandro Valverde, Egan Bernal, Adam Yates, Nairo Quintana, Kruijswijk, Michael Woods, Rafal Majka, Thibaut Pinot, Miguel Angel Lopez and Guillaume Martin.

The 26-year-old then picked up a top 25 at De Brabantse Pijl, a top 20 at the Amstel Gold Race, and then matched some of the world's best classics riders to finish 14th at the Binck Bank Tour just last week. I said it last year, and have yet to be proven right, but a significant victory – potentially in a classic - is not far away for Smith.

So what's he gonna do at the Vuelta?

He's likely set for teammate duty, though could potentially sneak into a few breakaways and make some noise if the parcour suits. Mitchelton-Scott's squad has five climbers better than Smith, but he can make himself useful in a leadout role by assisting sprinter Luka Mezgec, who just won two stages of the Tour of Poland against strong competition.

Can he win a stage?

It would probably take a specific breakaway to succeed. Mezgec is a handy enough climber for a sprinter - likely to be able to make it over the same climbs as Smith – so it's unlikely Smith will get a chance in a reduced sprint. A successful breakaway is his most realistic hope at some individual success.

Shane Archbold

Shane Archbold, feat. majestic mullet. Photo / Getty
Shane Archbold, feat. majestic mullet. Photo / Getty

What's his deal?

Archbold has quite the story. The 30-year-old spent a long time on the sidelines after a crash at the 2016 Tour de France, with a multitude of shocking injuries seeing him drop out of World Tour with Bora-Hansgrohe. When finally recovered, he linked up with second-division team Aqua Blue Sport, only for the Irish squad to fold, so he had to drop down further, to the third-tier Continental level, with EvoPro Racing. His time there was frankly nothing too special, but Archbold was still valued for his leadout skills, and when a spot opened up at Bora, they reached out to their old friend, and Archbold returned to the top rungs of the sport.

Oh yeah, he also has a glorious mullet.

Has he done much this year?

Just last week, Archbold claimed his first professional win, winning the second stage of Czech Tour. Granted, it was in a race with no top-level sprinters, and a bunch of Slovakians got mad because they thought his teammate Erik Baska should have been the team's designated sprinter, but still, from where Archbold began at the start of the year, it was a hell of an accomplishment.

More to the point of his actual role, however, Archbold has also produced some excellent leadouts for sprinter Sam Bennett, who has claimed 11 victories this year.

So what's he gonna do at the Vuelta?

A whole bunch of leadouts for Bennett. Bennett has been one of the best sprinters in the world in 2019, but was denied appearances at the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France because of similarly excellent sprinting teammates Pascal Ackermann and Peter Sagan. Both riders proved their worth by winning the two Grand Tours' respective points jerseys, and Bennett starts as favourite to win the Vuelta points jersey. He just won three stages in a row at the Binck Bank Tour, and Archbold will be able to help him accomplish his goals at the Vuelta.

Can he win a stage?

Only if something happens to Bennett. Leadouts can be a bit chaotic, so maybe Bennett crashes and Archbold gets an opportunity, or perhaps Bennett loses the wheel in a messy sprint and Archbold is told to chase his own glory. But apart from that, it'll be time to get to work for the Irishman.

Sam Bewley

The rare photo in which Sam Bewley isn't alongside a teammate. Photo / Getty
The rare photo in which Sam Bewley isn't alongside a teammate. Photo / Getty

What's his deal?

Bewley's role is hard to explain, which is why, fortunately, a remarkably mediocre journalist wrote a feature on him late last year.

Has he done much this year?

Probably not as much as he'd hoped. A crash in the prologue of the Tour of Romandie saw him ruled out of a planned Giro d'Italia appearance, as part of a near three-month span in which he didn't finish a race. And, of course, in the races he has finished, it's all been in the service of others – Bewley has claimed one top-40 finish in the 28 individual stages he's completed this season.

So what's he gonna do at the Vuelta?

Keep his good friend and team leader Esteban Chaves out of the wind. If Mitchelton-Scott happen to lead the race – like they did at the Giro and Vuelta last year – then you'll see a lot of Bewley on the front of the peloton, trying to keep the breakaway in check. If not – and it's more likely that Chaves will be in the mix for a top 10 finish, rather than being able to match it with the elite contenders - then Bewley will be in the peloton, keeping Chaves safe and well-positioned, and trying to tee him up for a strong finish.

Can he win a stage?

Considering he has never won a stage as a professional and is completely dedicated to being the best teammate possible, it would be one of the biggest shocks of the cycling year.