When you walk into Bike Breaks Pro shop in Placa dels Mercaders in Girona, among all the pro kit being sold, there are Shimano road shoes spot lit in a glass case that catch your eye.
There’s no price tag on them but Caitlin Fielder’s striking artwork on George Bennett’s shoes are stand-out pieces among the rails of pro apparel.
Throughout 2017 Bennett has effectively been modelling Fielder’s work by the simple fact of wearing it, a rolling catwalk display for fans of specialist footwear and art.
“Yeah, when you think about it, it’s like the last free space on a rider’s body, everything else we wear, jersey, shorts, helmet, glasses, it’s all exactly the same,” reflects Bennett.
The New Zealand couple, like so many Antipodeans, have made Girona their European base, each giving up secure career options in New Zealand for the transient and precarious life of professional cyclist and artist respectively.
“I graduated in Biological sciences and marina biology, in New Zealand; growing things in the sea, basically,” explains Fielder, enjoying a coffee in one of the many cafes in Girona’s Barri Vell, a labyrinth of covered passages and narrow medieval streets.
“It was OK, but not really what I wanted to do…”
“So I said to her she should give up her job and come to Girona and be an artist, full time,” interjects Bennett, brightly, with typical Kiwi candour. Bennett had decided from an early age that he wanted to be a professional and knew he had to travel to Europe to do that.
Having confidence in your talent and ‘following your dream’ were obvious paths for Bennett to follow and, from Bennett’s perspective, why wouldn’t Fielder do the same? If that’s what you have your heart set on, well, why not ‘give it a nudge’?
Although Fielder works as a commissioned fine artist, it was a birthday present for Bennett that would lead to her designs reaching a wider, curious audience. Simultaneously, the ‘NZ shoes’ painted for the Tour saw Bennett getting media interest for something other than his win at the 2017 Tour of California.
“I first decided to do a design on George’s shoes for the 2017 Tour of Abu Dhabi as a present,” explains Fielder, “but they were quite low key, on the inside of his shoes, a union jack design and it went from there.”
The design sketches grew increasingly complicated, culminating with the pair revealed at the Tour de France.
“It took a while to work out what the best preparation and medium was, the shoe ‘leather’ needs quite a bit of treatment before I start to paint them – in acrylic paint – and the early ones weren’t great in the rain. Now though, George can race them in the rain and they’re fine.”
What though, do the team and Shimano think?
“The Japanese loved them, they were great about it,” laughs Fielder “and the team were good about them too, which was a relief.
“To be honest, I was getting sick of talking about them during the Tour, there was so much media interest. I mean, fair enough, but I was at the Tour to race. Now? Its fine,” laughed Bennett, winding down his season after a mountain bike ride.
Bennett deserves to be talked about for more than unique New Zealand-inspired shoes. He quit his native South Island as an 18 year old, flying to Europe to pursue his ambitions.
He candidly admits there were nights he cried himself to sleep in Switzerland in his first months.
“The guy who picked me up at the airport said, ‘OK, there have been some changes. The team doesn’t exist anymore and the guy you are staying with has a thing for young blokes, if you know what I mean. And there’s no internet or phone.’
“I had no money either, but luckily the New Zealand 50 cent coin was the same size as the Swiss five-franc piece, so I used to go to vending machines, buy something for a franc and come away with four Swiss francs in change. That kept me going,” chuckles the 27-year-old from Nelson.
The image of Bennett, depressed in a Swiss garret, is a new spin on the old trope of suffering for (someone else’s) art.
With a 2017 Tour of California general classification as his biggest prize thus far, Bennett’s stock is still rising, though he finds himself intermittently hampered by, of all things, a side stitch.
“It affects me when I’ve been riding at threshold for somewhere around twenty minutes, I have to ease back to get rid of it then go again, but it’s so frustrating. I’ve had so many tests, MRI scans and investigations, given up gluten, lactose, caffeine. I even tried cupping therapy,” sighs Bennett.
His frustration is evident and understandable. “Like the stage to La Planche des Belles Filles, in the Tour, I was feeling really good all day, the team was there for me, I had great legs and then I got this side stitch when I was up with the leaders.
“It sort of flattened out a little and I got going again, but by then, it was too late. I remember looking at the results that night in the hotel and thinking, I should have been up there. I mean, I had the legs, but you can’t make the time back up if you have to sit up.”
Clearly Bennett has come too far, worked too hard and shown too much promise to shrug his slim shoulders and accept his lot.
His search for a solution to the mystery stitch continues and, if he and the staff at LottoNL-Jumbo do resolve the issue, his ambition for a 2018 Grand Tour podium could be fulfilled.
“It used to be that we’d look for races with not much time trialling in them,” reflected Bennett, “but the aero work we’ve done at the team, with the clothing and the time trial bikes means that’s not an issue, time trials can work for me now.
“I’m going to be looking at the Giro route pretty closely. Ideally, it’d me racing against a bunch of neo pros! That’d be perfect,” laughs Bennett.
And no doubt give Fielder plenty scope for a new shoe design or two; something with Italian flair.