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George Bennett is about to find out.
The New Zealand pro at UAE Team Emirates is already among the elite in a peloton full of sleek mountain specialists, but he’s the first to admit two-time defending champion Pogačar is on another level.
“Tadej? He is the best climber in the world,” Bennett told VeloNews. “My job is to be there for him as long as possible.”
Next month, Bennett’s job is going to try the near-impossible as he will attempt to stay with Pogačar as far as he can deep into the mountains in the Pyrénées and Alps.
“It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re the domestique it would be frustrating if the leader would be worse than you in the mountains, but with Tadej, you know he’s going to push you to the absolute limit.
“He needs you to the death, he needs you right to the very end.”
Bennett, 32, is a new piece to the ever-stronger UAE Team Emirates as the squad builds out a deeper bench to support Pogačar as the Slovenian pedals toward what could a third straight yellow jersey.
Pogačar is honing his form this week at the Tour of Slovenia, while Bennett is hot off finishing the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Arch-rivals Jumbo-Visma absolutely dominated the French race, winning three stages, the team classification, the green points jersey with Wout van Aert, and the overall with Primož Roglič and Jonas Vinegaard in second.
Bennett was paying close attention all week, but said UAE won’t be racing exclusively against Jumbo-Visma in July.
“There is a big danger of saying that this is Jumbo-Visma versus UAE,” Bennett said. “You have Ineos and Bora, and you have so many other guys. It’s something we need to avoid, then we are just opening ourselves up to having every other team having a free ride.”
Bennett, who is expected to be tapped to start the Tour with UAE, comes across after two seasons with Jumbo-Visma.
In 2020, he played a similar role to help Roglič, only to see Pogačar snatch away victory in the closing time trial in the Vosges. In 2021, Bennett raced GC at the Giro d’Italia to finish 11th and did not start the Tour.
Bennett will give Pogačar an extra ally deep in the hardest mountain stages.
“I bring a bit of experience, and my job is just to be there with him in the mountains,” Bennett told VeloNews last week at the Dauphiné. “When you’re the strongest guy in the race, you need the better team because everyone leans on you.
“Everyone is out to test you, even if they hurt themselves. So you need this insurance policy of a super strong team in the mountains. I am looking forward it.”
Our altitude training camp in @Livigno came to an end yesterday with another beautiful ride. ☀️🚴🏔️
— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamEmiratesUAE) June 13, 2022
UAE still has yet to reveal its “Tour Eight,” and Bennett is among several climbers expected to be selected to race.
Fellow newcomer Marc Soler will also help in the mountains, and Brandon McNulty, Marc Hirschi, and Rafal Majka will all provide Pogačar more protection on his flanks on the climbs.
UAE will also want to bring some stronger riders for the flats and the treacherous opening first week, such as Mikkel Bjerg, Matteo Trentin or Vegard Stake Laengen, so it will be interesting to see who makes the grade and who is left home.
Bennett said he’s relishing the chance to ride in support of someone favored to win the yellow jersey.
“When you’re doing it for somebody who really is there to win the race and a really nice guy as well, then it’s one of the most exciting jobs in the world,” he said.
“We cannot think about too many teams,” Bennett said. “We are going to be at the front, ride his pace on the climbs, and then be ready to handle anything that happens.”
Pogačar is usually alone off the front. Bennett is hoping to keep him company as long as possible.