PASADENA — George Bennett was in shock after winning the time trial at the Tour of California.
Shock hardly describes how he felt on Saturday.
After taking the overall race lead with a magnificent ride against the clock in the penultimate stage, the New Zealand rider managed to mark his closest competitors on the way to Pasadena. He finished safely in the chasing group to secure the biggest win of his career.
“Today is really, really special,” Bennett said. “I had a few hours last night to let it sink in and then it was business time. We had a job on our hands today and we were up to the task.”
Evan Huffman emerged from the breakaway for the second time this week to win the final stage, earning the most courageous rider jersey along the way. He was followed across the line by David Lopez and Nicolas Edet, who helped form the breakaway that made it to the finish line.
It was a similar result to the fourth stage in Santa Clarita, when Huffman and teammate Rob Britton swept the top two spots of the podium. The Rally Cycling duo were among the main agitators on the final stage, helping the small, U.S.-based team leave its mark on North America’s biggest stage race.
“I felt actually pretty bad at the start today, but we got into a break again,” Huffman said. “So yeah, feel really, really good. Kind of in disbelief I was able to do it two times.”
The group of overall contenders, with Huffman safely in the fold, finished 22 seconds behind the breakaway. That allowed him to hold off Rafal Majka and Andrew Talansky for the yellow jersey.
“Bike racing is bike racing,” said Talansky, who won the stage up Mount Baldy on Thursday. “I think I showed up pretty well. The team is one of the best teams in the race. We animated it every day.
“I’m optimistic for July,” Talansky said, looking ahead to the Tour de France.
Talansky and Sunweb’s Sam Oomen tried to escape on the second categorized climb, but a speeding peloton managed to nail them back, keenly aware of Talansky’s eye on the overall lead.
The peloton began nipping into the breakaway as the race sped toward Pasadena, trying to give their sprinters a chance to win the day. The Bora-Hansgrohe team was at the forefront, not only trying to give Majka the overall victory but set up Peter Sagan for the final sprint.
In the end, the group of charging riders couldn’t make up the difference.
“We thought we had it under control early on but it just all kicked off,” Bennett said. “I was under pressure a little bit because I had some bike problems but the team was with me all the way.”
Few had pegged Bennett for a spot atop the podium when the race began last Sunday.
His best finish in one of the grand tours came last season, when he was 10th overall at the Vuelta a Espana. He was seventh overall at the Tour of California last season, but otherwise a few top-10 rides in races such as the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour Down Under topped his resume.
That’s hardly the case anymore. In fact, Bennett’s ride through California could set him up for another shot at one of the grand tours later this season.
“I want to build on this. I want to take this back to Europe, my confidence and form, and see what I can do,” he said. “The win is a big stepping-stone for me. I’ve wanted to get my hands up in the air and win a race and I finally did it.”