Stage 4 of the Santos Tour Down Under was George Bennett's first real test following an off-season operation to cure a lingering side stitch issue. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider came through with flying colours, with his 15th place in Uraidla only hinting at his role in the race's finale.
Bennett and Richie Porte were the two most active riders, after the latter's BMC team thinned the field on the climb up Norton Summit in anticipation of the rolling roads into the new Uraidla finish.
While the course was hardly suited to the '58-kilo' frames of Bennett and Porte, the New Zealander isn't one to turn down the opportunity to mix it up in a finale.
"Not to sound like a dick, but it was really easy all day and then super hard at the end. That is freshness and that kick I probably don't have in the season when I am training really hard," Bennett told Cyclingnews, having first accompanied Porte to the BMC van before pedalling to the LottoNL-Jumbo bus.
"Me and Richie probably need to ride together a bit better. I look at him and he is Richie Porte and he can pull, you know. But I also committed really hard and there wasn't the cohesion we needed. I was just schooled in the sprint."
Initially away by themselves as their rivals scrambled to get on the wheels, a lack of cohesion between Bennett and Porte cost the duo as a rampaging Peter Sagan came to the fore and bossed the final three kilometres.
Despite the odds being stacked against them and Sagan chasing them down, Bennett shared a one-way exchange from Porte when the race was on.
"'Roll, you fuckwit' – that was about as literate as we got," he told reporters, adding there was no malice from Porte, a rider he calls "a good guy and friend of mine”. Porte, likewise, told reporters post-stage it was a simple racing exchange of dialogue and little more.
"Neither of us are going to win a sprint. We needed to go all in at that moment,” Bennett continued. “I thought he was going to smack me on the little roller and he probably thought the same about me. Two 58-kilo guys against a peloton, headwind, and rolling thing we are not going to get far."
Once Porte and Bennett's move had been shut down, Rohan Dennis (BMC), Sagan and Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) were the riders to make the junction across and form a formidable quintet, with the enticing stage finish and ochre jersey awaiting.
"I thought that was going to stick but Richie looked at Sagan, Sagan looked at Rohan... It is all just a bit of cat and mouse. Sagan had it anyway, it was good fun," he said.
In the run to the line, with hopes of the stage win extinguished and all impetus evaporated in the 44-degree heat, Bennett slipped into the chase group. Despite not packing a sprint, his 15th place was his best stage result since last year's Tour de France.
"I think I rode really smart today. I didn't panic at all and I was sitting last wheel in that group for ages. There was headwind and everyone was wasting energy and I just moved up just before the climb and gave it a nudge. It was as good a day as you can have without getting a result."
The Willunga Hill stage on Saturday is better suited to Bennett's climbing characteristics. With teammate Robert Gesink sixth and Bennett eighth in the overall standings heading into the queen stage, both riders are on track for career-best results at the race. The question, though, is how to stop Porte from taking a fifth win atop Willunga Hill, and with it the ochre leader's jersey.
"I know it’s going to be a headwind. I can't get rid of him, probably can't beat him in a sprint. There is no easy way around it, maybe put a stick in his wheel?" Bennett said with a laugh. "Nah, I think Sagan could win tomorrow because it is a headwind and it is hard to go alone. Richie on the hill is in a league of his own. He wasn't even breathing today so I think we will see him come out."