Stage 2 at the Amgen Tour of California turned into an unexpected general classification battle, with Bora-Hansgrohe's Rafal Majka taking the win from a group of four ahead of George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Ian Boswell (Team Sky) and Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data).
Although Majka got the stage win and the race lead, it was Bennett and his Dutch team who were responsible for blowing the race apart on Mt. Hamilton, the hors category climb that topped out at 97km into the 144.5km race.
Bennett's team massed on the front at the bottom of the climb and set a pace that quickly began whittling the non-climbers from the field. Race leader Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) was soon jettisoned, as was Majka's teammate Peter Sagan, who finished second on a nearly identical stage in 2015.
"We decided already a week ago that today we were going to race hard," Bennett said. "We've got a really young team, a really motivated team. We put the boys on the front at the bottom of Mt. Hamilton, and we took the race by the balls."
Bennett timed his own attack perfectly, jumping away from a select GC group that had formed behind the day's breakaway, bringing Majka, Boswell and Morton with him. Notably missing from the move were Cannondale-Drapac's Andrew Talansky, BMC Racing's Brent Bookwalter and Samuel Sanchez, and Trek-Segafredo's Haimar Zubeldia, among other potential GC contenders.
"I sort of looked back and saw Lachie [Morton] and Boswell coming over, and I knew straight away they were going to come to my wheel," Bennett said. "I did about 30 seconds full gas and we all worked together well and we all knew we had the same ambitions.
"None of us can beat Talansky in a time trial, and we all wanted to put some space between us and him, so we didn't piss around," Bennett said. "No one pulled soft, and that's what you need to make it work."
A move of GC contenders with 50km to go has become a rarity in modern cycling, but Bennett initiated the move with confidence, given the long descent following the climb and the rolling and somewhat protected nature of the remaining course.
"You don't make a move like that just to throw a cat amongst the pigeons," Bennett said. "You have to look at the terrain. It was 50k to go, and if it was a valley with headwinds, then you'd never make it, but when it's like that, that downhill was pretty loose.
"We went with full ambition," he said. "We wanted to really shake it up and put the other guys in a shit position really, and we did. And it paid off. What actually happened was we had the young guys go all out until they ran out of steam completely. Then there was a little lull and a few guys kind of tried and didn't make it, so you could kind of see people were on their limit."
LottoNL-Jumbo also benefited from having Robert Gesink in the chase group behind. The winner of the 2012 Tour of California sat in the catbird seat as the other teams, especially Cannondale and BMC, were in full panic mode trying to chase down the dangerous move.
"It was a good team tactics today," Gesink told Cyclingnews. "The boys did a good job pulling, and then George attacked. I think the strongest four went on Hamilton, and then unfortunately he just didn't win, but I could sit on in the back and won the sprint of the group, so I think I also have a good level. But George has a really good level that's good for the upcoming days for sure."
Gesink led the next group in for fifth, 37 seconds behind the winner, and is now fifth overall, 48 seconds behind Majka. Bennett is just two seconds out of the leader's jersey.
"We can play the game, and I think we did excellent today, and hopefully we will the next two days as well," Gesink said.
Stage 3 is almost certainly a day for the sprinters, while stage 4 is a mixed bag that could favour a breakaway or come down to another bunch gallop. The next GC day will likely come on Thursday with the climb up Mt. Baldy, a stage Gesink won in 2012 on the way to taking the overall.
The question is, will the team be all in for Bennett, or will Gesink get his chance to try for a repeat of his 2012 performance. Either way, the team now has a two-pronged attack to throw into the GC battle.
"Of course it's the main GC stage," Gesink said of Mt. Baldy. "But I think George has super, super legs, and, as I said before, maybe we can play the game."