BIG BEAR LAKE — George Bennett woke up Friday feeling downright miserable.
He was miserable physically after the grueling fifth stage of the Tour of California that took riders on the arduous climb up Mount Baldy. And he felt miserable mentally after finishing the stage a scant six seconds behind Rafal Majka for the overall race lead.
Bennett will wake up Saturday feeling a whole lot better.
The New Zealand rider covered the 15-mile time trial course around Big Bear Lake in 28 minutes, 45 seconds, one of the quickest times in the sixth stage and enough to give him the yellow jersey.
“I woke up and didn’t feel that good. I don’t think anybody did after yesterday,” Bennett said, “and obviously I was pretty frustrated. I put a lot of expectations on myself. And I think today, at this altitude, you can’t go above your limit. I had to ride super controlled and focused.”
Bennett didn’t know how well he was doing until midway through the time trial, when his manager got on the radio and started hollering. Bennett responded by giving everything he had to the line.
He finished 18 seconds behind stage winner Jon Dibben, who clocked an impressive 28:27, and was fourth-fastest on the day. The only rider who could catch him in the overall standings was Majka, who had led since the second stage and started two minutes later.
Majka’s disappointing time of 29:26 dropped him 35 seconds behind Bennett into second overall.
“I think no one expected this less than I did,” said Bennett, who finished seventh overall a year ago. “I mean, people were sort of mentioning maybe I could do it. Normally I really back myself but today I didn’t. Yesterday I was a little disappointed and today, I just can’t believe it.”
This is the first time Bennett has had the lead in a major stage race, and his teammates from Lotto NL-Jumbo will try to protect him all the way to the finish Saturday in Pasadena.
The final stage takes riders 77 miles through the San Gabriel Mountains. There are a couple of climbs where Majka and other contenders will try to attack, but a long run-in to the finish should give the field ample time to come together and produce another sprint finish.
“The boys road their hearts out for me all week,” Bennett said. “No matter who I’m racing for, you have to respect them and pay them back. That’s just being a professional.”
Most of the eyes Friday were on Stage 5 winner Andrew Talansky, who needed to pull back 44 seconds on Majka to move into the lead. The American stopped the clock 16 behind Dibben to finish third on the stage, but it was only good enough to leave Talansky 36 seconds back in third overall.
The most disappointing day belonged to Lachlan Morton, who started the day 49 seconds behind Majka in fifth overall. He hadn’t even rolled down the start ramp when a mechanical problem forced him to swap bikes. He had to swap again later on the course, dooming his day.
Brent Bookwalter moved up to fourth overall, 45 seconds back, after covering the course in 28:34 to finish second on the day. It was validation for the American, who spent time training at Big Bear prior to the Tour and had become quite familiar with the course and its challenges.
“We all knew it wasn’t going to be pretty,” he said. “I was staying right on the course, I put a lot of preparation into it and that served me well. It was really daunting to think of doing a 30-minute effort out there, really just relentless. Lots of oxygen debt and sort of delirious at the end.”
Bennett was feeling delirious too, but in an entirely different way. He was trying to come to grips with the biggest stage win of his career and what Saturday’s finale could mean to his career.
“This is full-gas racing tomorrow,” he said. “The boys have a big job.”