George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) surprised nobody more than himself on Friday after taking the Tour of California yellow jersey, but the Kiwi only took a few moments to celebrate his success before regrouping and focusing on the winning the general classification.
Bennett successfully fended off multiple attacks from Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac), Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) during the hilly 125km stage from Mountain High Resort to Pasadena to win the GC classification of the 12th Amgen Tour of California.
"I had a few hours last night to let it sink in, then it clicked over to business time," Bennett said. "We had a job on our hands today, and we were up to the task. It feels pretty special today, I believe it now."
The opening kilometres of the race, which began in the San Gabriel Mountains, descended a twisting and at times steep mountain road. An early crash in the opening kilometres of the descent, involving Taylor Phinney (Cannondale-Drapac) and Juraj Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), required Bennett to step in as the peloton's patron and neutralise the field.
After 10km of calm the peloton took up the charge and attacks began to fly. The day's breakaway jumped away on the first KOM climb and stayed away to the line, giving Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling) the win. Back in the field, Bennett and the LottoNL-Jumbo team were forced to keep the break in check because it contained Lachlan Morton, who was only 2:20 down in the GC and fend off attacks from Bora, BMC and Cannondale-Drapac.
"Talansky hit me like 10 times, he wouldn't' stop," Bennett said. "Him and Bookwalter had a little arrangement. Talansky kept hitting it and looking back and waiting for Brent.
"The team was up to it, and his team tried to drop my team first, and maybe it wasn't on camera or something, but he must have attacked me 10 times. Every climb, full gas."
Through the week Bennett was supported by a team of young riders who he jokingly referred to as ‘my team 15-year-old climbers' in Friday's press conference. He was also able to rely on guidance from 2012 Tour of California winner Robert Gesink.
LottoNL-Jumbo came into the Tour of California with Bennett and Gesink designated as co-leaders, giving them multiple cards to play through the week. Gesink experienced a mechanical in the time trial and lost more than two minutes in the GC, but it didn't stop the former winner from going to work for Bennett on Saturday.
"To have a guy like that - he can attack, can follow, and on a day like today can chase down everything, that's really calming for me," Bennett said. "It soothes my nerves a little bit. The younger guys look to him, and he's big role model for them."
It was Bennett's fourth Tour of California, and the 27-year-old rider said he was taking away a new confidence from his time trial performance and GC win. Bennett pointed to the Tour of California's evolution as a reason he and other riders have continued to come back.
"It is turning into more of a bike racers race than a numbers race where you just ride along on a big highway and smash it up the hill," Bennett said. "You've got moves like we did on stage 2, and again like we did today, it really brings in the element of bike racing that's not just pushing watts per kilo."