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Peak performance

UCI Road World Championships 

Peak performance

Interview with professional road cyclist George Bennett from New Zealand

Text: Simon Leitner, Picture: Johannes Mair / Alpsolut

This year saw pro bike rider George Bennett complete his first ever altitude training camp in Kühtai together with his team LottoNL-Jumbo. We sat down with the New Zealander to talk about the effects of training at over 2,000 metres, his thoughts on the up-coming UCI Road World Championships in September and what it feels like to compete against your own teammates.

What are the benefits training at over 2,000 metres above sea level? George Bennett: The main advantage of altitude training is that high up in the mountains your body absorbs less oxygen. That forces it to adapt to these conditions – especially if you spend a long time at altitude. The body then produces more red blood cells and more mitochondria in order to compensate for this lack of oxygen. Another advantage of training camps like this one is that you are in a very concentrated environment, together with all the team and all the staff. Here in Kühtai you also have to climb up a bloody big hill at the end of each day’s training – that is really tough. So there are a few benefits of training at altitude.

What kind of training have you been doing here in Kühtai? Is it different from your “normal” training? Yes, you can say that we reduce the intensity but increase the volume. We ride a lot in the mountains for hours on end and do a lot of work. The fine tuning and the really intense efforts are kept for after the training camp, when we are back down in the valley.

George Bennett and the LottoNL-Jumbo team training at altitude in Kühtai.

How many kilometres and vertical metres of climbing do you do on average? Recently we have been doing around 200 kilometres and 4,500 metres of climbing – that was a long day for us. Here it’s almost impossible to ride less than 3,000 vertical metres. That is perfect for us because the climbs place a strain on muscles which you normally don’t use when riding on the flat. 

What do you find more difficult – the climbs or the descents? The climbs. The descents are just really fun. I also like climbing, because that’s what I’m good at. When it comes to the descents I guess you could say we’re all still like kids. We love going downhill as fast as we can. It’s fun.

Is it hard to get used to the altitude? Personally I don’t find it that difficult. I have an apartment at around 2,000 metres above sea level in Andorra, and as a climber I do lots of altitude camps around the world. Sprinters, on the other hand, probably don’t come as this high as often and may need up to a week to get used to the altitude and to start training properly. 

Which problems can occur at these kinds of altitudes? One common mistake is that riders try to push as hard at altitude as they do down in the valley – but if you haven’t yet become accustomed to the thin air then it doesn’t work. In fact, it often results in them feeling really bad and becoming overtrained. You then need a good few weeks of rest and recovery for your hormone level to return to normal and to start feeling okay again. There’s always a bit of a risk training at altitude, but with the right team and a some experience it normally isn’t a problem getting.

What makes training here in Kühtai so challenging and different from elsewhere? One of the biggest challenges is definitely the weather. After all, we are in the mountains. That means there can always be a storm. The other thing is that training involves a lot of suffering. However, you are rewarded with fabulous views, especially of these long mountain chains. And, last but not least, training has a lot of positive effects on your physical performance – that’s the reason why we are here.

How long does it take to feel the positive effects? You probably have to be at altitude for at least 17 or 18 days. However, you notice the difference as soon as you are down in the valley. Some people have maybe one or two bad days, but all in all the positive effects of altitude training last for one or two months.

“You probably have to be at altitude for at least 17 or 18 days. However, you notice the difference as soon as you are down in the valley.” George Bennett

So that means you can notice the positive effects straight after the training camp? Yes. You can also notice yourself getting better during the training camp. Of course you still suffer and it still hurts, but over time it becomes easier. A god way of measuring that is to look at how you ride up the mountain. On day one you might be pushing 250 watts and your heart rate will be through the roof. On day two your heart rate is already lower and your body has to do less work. That shows your body has already become accustomed to the altitude and made the necessary changes. When you then get back down into the valley you have more red blood cells, more mitochondria, more capillaries – and those are all things you have built up during three weeks at altitude.

Are there any negative effects of altitude training? Yes, but only for sprinters – and only if you do it the wrong way. Here in Kühtai it’s perfect because you can easily ride down from the mountain and train in the valley. For example, Danny (van Poppel), our sprinter for the Vuelta a España rides down into the valley and trains at 500 or 600 metres above sea level. He does his high-intensity efforts down there and can then either ride or drive back up to Kühtai. If you do things like that then it’s not a problem – the key is managing things the right way.

How important is altitude training in modern cycling? The racing is so tough these days that I would say altitude training is essential if you want to win at the biggest bike races such as the Vuelta a España or the Tour de France. There is nobody in the top 15 or top 20 who hasn’t done an altitude training camp.

“The racing is so tough these days that I would say altitude training is essential if you want to win at the biggest bike races such as the Vuelta a España or the Tour de France.” George Bennett

Unlike many of your teammates you are training here in Kühtai for the first time. How have you liked it so far? Really good. It’s stunning here – definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever done a training camp. The glaciers and mountains everywhere are amazing. We have also ridden the Timmelsjoch pass and the course of the Ötztal Bike Marathon. The roads are in amazing condition and are probably some of the smoothest in Europe.

The UCI Road World Championships will be taking place in Innsbruck this September. Have you had a chance to look at the courses? Yes. We have had a look at several sections of the courses. I love the route, and the World Championships are a big goal for me. I am not yet sure if I will have the chance to ride for New Zealand in the team time trial, but the road races look promising. It could be the best World Championships for years. I am really looking forward to it.

What are your expectations for the World Championships? Oh, we’re going to suffer a lot! My personal goal is clear: finishing in the top ten would be a dream come true for me. That is a very ambitious aim, but I think it’s better to aim high and risk falling short than to go into the race aiming for 20th place or something like that. 

At the World Championships you will be riding for your country and therefore against some of your teammates. What is that like? It’s really weird. I have already experienced it before at the Olympics. I have been riding with these guys for years – and now, all of a sudden, we are rivals. But it’s also nice to ride together with other people. Some of my best friends are riders from New Zealand. Normally they ride for other teams. That’s why it is so special to ride together once a year with those guys on the same team. 

What makes it so special to ride for New Zealand? As I said, some of my best friends are riders from the New Zealand national team. It’s a great advantage that we know each other so well because you can kind of know what the others are going to do. One possible downside is that each rider has his own personal ambitions – it’s not always easy to be professional about it. But that’s not a problem we have in the New Zealand team. The roles are clearly defined and everyone knows what they have to do.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.


George Bennett, born on 7 April 1990 in New Zealand, has been a member of the LottoNL-Jumbo team since 2015. His major successes include 10th place overall in the Vuelta a España (2016), 8th place overall in the 2018 Giro d’Italia and victory at the Tour of California (2017). Bennett finished second on two stages of this year’s Tour of the Alps, including the stage finishing in Innsbruck.

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