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George Bennett’s California surprise

ONTARIO, California (VN) — Reporters didn’t want to talk to George Bennett in Sacramento. He was just another outside contender, sitting on the periphery of prognostication. Before stage 1, he sat in front of his team’s rented RV in a folding chair, chatting with his young teammates, checking the pins on his number, left alone.

Even in Pismo Beach, the morning after the assault on Mt. Hamilton that would win him the Amgen Tour of California, he wandered around the beachfront parking lot largely unrecognized. I said “hi,” shook his hand, told him I’d catch him after Baldy for an interview. “Yesterday was a cracker, eh?” I said. He laughed. “Yeah, I feel good,” he said. The conversation ended there.

When a rider is going well you can see it in their face. It’s a confidence, and a leanness. In hindsight, Bennett had it. With hindsight, we all should have known. He’s a rider who’s been knocking on the door for years. Of course one day he’d open it.

A month ago, I sat down with Bennett at a coffee shop in Boulder, Colorado. He was staying above town in Nederland, sleeping at 7,800 feet, training on Flagstaff and Sunshine and Magnolia, climbing all day. “Love being back here,” he said as he grabbed a seat. “It feels a bit like a second home,” a sentiment that has roots in his time with Axel Merckx’s Trek-Livestrong program in 2011. He ordered a decaf. “Love the taste and love the act of getting a coffee, but try to keep caffeine to a minimum outside racing,” he explained.

Bennett has been on an upward trajectory for a few years now, with a previous peak at last year’s Vuelta a Espana. He finished 10th there, in a stacked field. Then he got mononucleosis in November. “I pushed it too hard for too long, didn’t listen to my body,” he said. “And I had to stay off the bike for a month. But in the end, maybe that wasn’t so bad.”

He’s dealt with other setbacks too. Recurring side stitches have hampered his climbing for years. He’s tried everything, been to a swath of different doctors, but hasn’t yet found a consistent solution. “If anyone has any brilliant ideas, reach out to me. They’ve been a real problem,” he said. He had fewer of them last week, but still rode through a couple of them in the final stages.

A month go, winning the Tour of California didn’t really seem to be on Bennett’s mind. Yes, he was at altitude. Yes, he was training hard. He finished a five-hour day on the bike right before our interview. But when we walked through the contenders — Andrew Talansky, Brent Bookwalter, Rafal Majka — he saw the potential for big time losses in the 24km time trial and only one chance for redemption, on Mt. Baldy. He was slightly worried about his legs coming down from the altitude camp, too. “Historically, I’ve felt pretty shit after going to altitude,” he said. “I’ve never seen a huge power bump, either.”

It’s difficult to tell how seriously Bennett takes anything. The constant jokes and ever-present smile are like a rain jacket for pressure. It beads up and roll off him. So it feels at times like he doesn’t care, that he’s not fully committed. He does things most pros wouldn’t do: On his last weekend in Boulder he jumped in a local amateur race, Koppenberg, a short, half-dirt circuit with a nasty kicker of a climb. He signed up as a Cat. 3 with a one-day license, raced “unattached” in the Pro/1/2/3 field, and finished second out of a two-man breakaway. It was the last time he would race before California. An odd tune-up indeed. But then you look at his arms, how lean he is, how careful he is with his decaf coffee. “I put the time in,” he said. “I’m serious but not serious.”

A week ago, Bennett was on the list of outside contenders for the overall in California, one of those riders who could maybe, possibly do something special, if luck fell his way.

This win wasn’t luck though. LottoNL-Jumbo had a plan. The first sign its execution came on the lower slopes of Mt. Hamilton. Bennett’s young team — “We brought a bunch of 15-year-old climbers,” he joked at one press conference — hit the front and hit it hard. “We knew something was up, that they were trying something,” said BMC’s Brent Bookwalter. They were. As Bennett’s team ran out of horsepower he set off on his own. Ian Boswell followed, and Lachlan Morton. Rafal Majka bridged across. Andrew Talansky and Brent Bookwalter waited. It was the defining moment of the race.

Bennett took 43 seconds that day. Five days later, he won the overall by 36.

Holding on to his lead took the time trial of Bennett’s life, one that left him and others all but speechless. “Did I just get beat by George Bennett in a time trial?” Taylor Phinney wondered aloud at his team bus. “I mean, I outweigh him by like 25 kilos.” The last stage, described as “mostly downhill” because of its net elevation loss actually had major climbs. Bennett’s challengers hit him again and again, “three the whole kitchen sink at us,” he said. “Talasnky hit me like 10 times, he wouldn’t stop.” A few times, Bennett ended up off the front with the rest of the podium, isolated and without teammates, covering move after move. But they couldn’t break him.

“He’s such a good dude,” everyone kept saying, all week. Everyone who met him. His rampant Kiwi-isms charmed us in press conferences, at his team bus in the morning and finish lines in the afternoon. Following the final stage of the Amgen Tour of California on Saturday, moments after he’d sealed his first major stage race victory, rider after rider rolled up to congratulate him. Competitors slapped him on the back, wrapped arms around his thin, yellow-clad shoulders, their happiness for him clearly genuine. He beamed and thanked each one.

Bennett pulled up just past the final finish line, stood in the yellow jersey and leaned half off his bike. He became the epicenter of a quickly growing scrum, as media and race officials and other riders pressed in. The last rider to reach Bennett before he was pulled away for the podium ceremony was Quick-Step’s fellow Kiwi, Jack Bauer. He arrived with a roar. “My maan! My maaan” Bauer yelled as Bennett whipped around.

“My Tasman Wheelers! We used to knock it out of the park at Tuesday night worlds,” Bennett yelled to me over the booming voices of race announcers Dave Towle and Brad Sohner. Bennett and Bauer were teammates as juniors, part of the same club in New Zealand. The only two to “really make it,” Bauer said, without going through New Zealand’s track program. “It’s one in a million chance, but he’s done it,” he said. “He’s been knocking on the door of a major win for a long time, and here it is.”

Here it is. George Bennett’s first big win. A decade in the making and well earned.

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