Most the talk ahead of Friday's stage 6 time trial at the Amgen Tour of California centered around whether stage 5 winner Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) would be able to keep his momentum rolling and unseat Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) for the overall race lead.
"I think I'm the most surprised guy that watched the time trial or was part of this event," Bennett said in the post-stage press conference. "I mean, yeah, I never thought I'd be there. I look at the profile and I look at the course, it was fast, it was furious. You just needed a lot of power today and that's not what I have.
"I don't know where it came from," he said. "I think I just went out there, and if you're familiar with the expression 'twisting a nut,' that's all I can think of." Bennett covered the course in Big Bear, which sits at more than 2,000 metres of elevation, in 28:45, good enough for fourth place behind stage winner Jon Dibben (Team Sky), Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and Talansky. More importantly, he finished 59 seconds ahead of Majka to take the race lead ahead of the Polish rider by 35 seconds. Talansky is now third at 36, with Bookwalter in fourth at 45.
Bennett said he was taken aback when informed in the finishing straight that he had taken the race lead.
"There was a lot of feeling of disbelief at first, but a lot of work had gone into that," he said. "It's not like I got good at time trialling overnight. I trained really hard for it, my coach has put in a huge amount and my team put me through the ringer on positioning and everything like that. I think it's a huge credit to them that I could even finish in the top 10 in a time trial."
Bennett put himself in position to take the lead with a week of consistent riding that started with his second-place finish to Majka after escaping on stage 2 with the Bora rider and fellow GC threats Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data) and Ian Boswell (Team Sky).
The 27-year-old had hoped to put more time into his rivals during the queen stage summit finish on Mt. Baldy during stage 5, but he had to settle for third behind Majka and Talansky. Bennett voiced a lot of frustration with his final performance on the mountain.
"When I say I was disappointed I mean I still had a good ride," he said. "On stage 2 I sort of told myself I wouldn't let anyone put me into the barriers; I'm not saying it was a dangerous sprint or anything, I'm saying Rafal on stage 2 did a really smart sprint and closed the door.
"I told myself I'd never let that happen again, but it happened again [during stage 5] on the corners; they just through me on the inside. I'm not complaining at all, because that's what I wanted to do to them."
Bennett failed to gain time on his GC rivals and went into the time trial trailing Majka by six seconds and with a 19 second lead over Boswell, 38 over Talansky and 56 over Bookwalter. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider had told Cyclingnews earlier in the week that he'd need at last 90 seconds over riders like Bookwalter and Talansky if he wanted to hold them off. Turns out he was happily wrong about that.
Now he and his relatively young team have to defend for one one more stage, the 125km run from Mountain High Ski Resort to Pasadena. The profile of the stage runs generally downhill, but three classified climbs along the way mean Bennett and his team will not be able to relax.
"At the moment, this is the ideal situation, having yellow going into one day to go, but it's really not over yet," Bennett said. "It's not like you see on the last day of the Grand Tours where they drop back and drink champagne and stuff like that.
"I'm expecting them to be dropping bombs tomorrow and bloody Rafal heading up the inside for a sprint, and my team of 15-year-old climbers on the front chasing them down. It's gonna be fun."
More seriously, Bennett said his team would be fully focused Friday night on recovering for Saturday, when they will have to be hype-vigilant about who goes up the road.
"If it goes on the climb, we'll be OK," he said. "But if goes on the flat, and we're just puffing up and they attack shit out of us, then we just have to make some alliances with sprinters and try to get a few more teams involved, make it a family affair."