Despite the tumult and the disarray all around him, George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) did his level best to arrange his thoughts as cohesively as he could as he stood on the roadside a little past the finish line at Mount Etna on Thursday evening.
The dark clouds swirling about the summit and the black volcanic soil on the mountainside had already lent the place a rather forbidding air. The atmosphere was hardly more convivial with the addition of parping horns, labouring motors and whistling policemen as the race convoy inched past after stage 6 of the Giro d'Italia.
A soigneur helped Bennett into a long-sleeved jersey and wrapped a towel about his neck to stave off the cold. The race's opening mountain stage saw the New Zealander among the principal aggressors in the group of favourites, and he reached the finish in fourth place, 26 seconds behind the Mitchelton-Scott tandem of Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates.
"I did feel strong, but I rode with a bit too much enthusiasm I think," Bennett told Cyclingnews as he prepared to find a way through the chaos to his team bus. "I had them on the ropes, and we dropped them a few times. [Thibaut] Pinot wouldn't ride, and I think people were a bit scared, a bit worried about the end. I'm disappointed now, but I'll look back, and I'm sure I'll be happy."
Bennett had ample time to ponder his performance on the infernally long transfer that followed. He and the Giro gruppo still had to come down off the volcano and then cross the Strait of Messina on a service provided – perhaps fittingly – by a company called Caronte, or Charon, the ferryman of Hades. Once across the other side, the LottoNL-Jumbo hotel was still another hour up the coast in Maratea.
In the rather more tranquil surrounds of the seafront in Pizzo, where stage 7 began on Friday, Bennett expanded on his snap analysis of the Giro's first summit finish. He arrived at this race targeting a place in the top 10 – or better – and he lies ninth on GC, 1:10 behind the maglia rosa Yates after a pugnacious showing on the upper slopes of Mount Etna.
"It would have been a good opportunity to take time out of other guys. A couple of times we got a gap, but we just didn't have the cohesion," said Bennett, who accelerated on at least three occasions at the front of the group of favourites, where only Yates, Pinot and Domenico Pozzovivo appeared to be pedalling with similar vim.
"Thibaut wouldn't ride, and Yates was obviously sitting on because of Chaves, I think I tried to force it too much. But I'm pretty new to racing finals on the tougher climbs, so it's just a learning thing. For sure I'm going to have to be a lot calmer and patient because you can't ride like that on every mountain for three weeks."
Bennett's best Grand Tour showing to date was his 10th place on 2016 Vuelta a España, while illness cut short a promising Tour de France last year.
The first summit finish of a Grand Tour is often a cagey affair, and the two principal favourites, Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome, seemed largely content to follow on Etna. Bennett, by contrast, showed considerable ambition during an onslaught that owed more to instinct than to planning.
"Everybody knew that the last 5k was where the party started and I didn't feel like I'd been under pressure to that point, but I looked around and some of the guys did look under pressure," Bennett said. "But it's always hard to tell with some of these guys. Froome and Dumoulin were dropping back a bit, but maybe they were riding at their own pace, so I don't know if they were legitimately dropped or not.
"I really started trying to establish a gap, and Pozzovivo was really strong and really willing to help, but it's hard when you've got a couple of guys sitting on your wheel, especially when they're two of the best climbers in the world. It wasn't something I had premeditated to be aggressive; I just happened to be there."
After the antipasto in Sicily, the Giro will take on another serving of mountains with a weekend doubleheader, starting with the steady category 2 finale at Montevergine di Mercogliano on stage 8, followed by the more demanding two-part haul to Gran Sasso d'Italia on Sunday afternoon.
Bennett admitted that he knew precious little about the climbs on offer this weekend, though he is well aware that the true story of this race will be written during the succession of mountain passes in the Alps in the final week. The road to Rome is a daunting one, but that is no reason for inhibition.
"I actually seem to struggle on the steep, short, punchy stuff, or at last I'm not as good as I am on the really long efforts like yesterday. That was an hour of climbing, and that's where I'm good," Bennett said. "If I lose a bit of time on the short, steep, punchy stuff, well that happens a lot with me. I'm probably looking more to the third week, with those really long climbs, multiple ones."
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