Analysis: Bennett’s California crown earned with equal parts bravado and brawn

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New Zealander George Bennett won the 2017 Amgen Tour of California not because he was the strongest rider in the race, but because he willed it to happen.

Across the two stages that everyone knew to be decisive for the general classification — the Mt. Baldy summit finish and the Big Bear time trial — Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) was strongest, finishing fifth on Mt. Baldy and second in Big Bear. However Bookwalter finished the seven-stage race nine seconds below Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) on the general classification, due to Talansky’s 10-second time bonus, earned by winning on Baldy.

However neither American rider was wearing the yellow jersey in Pasadena Saturday afternoon.

That honor would go to Bennett, whose LottoNL-Jumbo team took the race by the horns on Stage 2, forcing a split among the GC favorites that both Bookwalter and Talansky missed.

On Stage 2, Bennett’s LottoNL-Jumbo team amassed at the front of the peloton on Mt. Hamilton and set a blistering tempo, shredding the bunch apart. One by one, his team of young climbers rode themselves into the ground until only 2012 California winner Robert Gesink remained.

The Dutch climber took one final pull at the front, and then Bennett launched an attack that only Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data) and Ian Boswell (Team Sky) could initially follow. Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) bridged across, and the four climbers rode away to the finish.

“We highlighted that as a really good opportunity — as a racer’s day, not just pushing numbers,” Bennett said. “I knew there were crazy downhills, and things like that. We really wanted to attack that day.”

“The boys did a super job, but they ran out of steam way too early. And I thought, ‘shit, this is a dangerous situation.’ Robert [Gesink] kept the pace high, and I could see guys were struggling. And then I just [attacked] from 15 wheels back.”

In the end, Majka took 37 seconds over Bookwalter and Talansky, plus 10 seconds time bonus; Bennett took the same time, plus six seconds bonus, for a total of 43 seconds.

Five days later, Bennett finished the race 36 seconds ahead of Talansky.

Take away Stage 2 — imagine the GC contenders cross the line as a group — and Talansky wins the overall by nine seconds, ahead of Bookwalter, with Bennett the strongest of the four men who broke away into San Jose.

There is, of course, no taking away Stage 2. There is only celebrating it as aggressive, intelligent bike racing.

LottoNL-Jumbo saw Stage 2 — with the mid-stage climb of Ht. Hamilton, harrowing descents of Hamilton and Quimby Road, and an uphill finish in San Jose — as an opportunity to strike.

Talansky and Bookwalter watched, but did not react. Looking back, that was the moment the race was won.

Rafal Majka won the battle in San Jose on Stage 2, but George Bennett won the war by taking 41 seconds out of Majka in the Stage 6 time trial. Photo: Brian Hodes/Cor Vos.

“I made a tactical decision, and it ended up being the wrong one,” Talansky said. “The decision was to stay calm and stick with my team. They rolled the dice, and came away with time. In most races, in most scenarios, that’s not a move that’s going to work, and you end up wasting energy. Obviously it worked. I got to the end of that day lost 37 seconds, but it could have gone the other way and you’re sitting there saying, ‘good thing I didn’t waste the energy.’ I definitely had a bit of a point to prove on Mt. Baldy, not to anyone else, but to my self — to look into myself and say it wasn’t the legs, it was purely tactical. That’s the thing about bike racing, sometimes the results sheet doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Still, nothing was assured for Bennett, who still had to hold his own on Baldy and then put in the time trial of his life at Big Bear Lake to hold off Majka, Talansky, and Bookwalter.

“I think I’m the most surprised guy that was part of this event,” Bennett said after taking yellow in the time trial. “When I looked at the profile of the course it  was fast, furious, and you needed a lot of power today and that’s not what I have. I don’t know where it came from. If you’re familiar with the expression ‘twisting a nut,’ that’s all can think of. It gives me a lot of hope for the future. A lot of optimism. A lot of confidence.”

After crossing the final finish line Sunday in Pasadena, Bennett used the words “special” and “disbelief” to describe what he’d accomplished on the roads of California.

“This is really, really special,” Bennett said. “[Friday] I was in disbelief, and then it had time to sink in last night. It was pain, then I was happy, then pain again. Talansky must have attacked me 10 times today. The guys made it a very hard race. It was relieving to cross the line.”

Bennett’s victory was all the sweeter given that he’d been diagnosed with mononucleosis last November, and spent all of December off the bike. He got back on the bike in early January. “I remember, my first ride, I did two or three hours. After that I did three 30-hour weeks, and then went to Abu Dhabi.”

LottoNL director Frans Maassen admitted he was surprised to be leaving California with the overall victory.

“Yes, I am surprised,” Maassen said. “We saw that he has made a lot of improvement in the time trial, because he also did a tenth at the Tour of Basque time trial, against all of the big stars. That gave us a lot of confidence that he could something good here. To be honest, I was afraid for him. I thought if we could reach the podium, it would be great. You never know with Majka, normally he can do a good time trial. We knew George was in good shape. We hoped on Baldy to win the stage. We did everything for him, and we didn’t succeed. So to take the overall win is really nice.”

“Also, he has a good girlfriend now,” Massen continued. “That makes a difference. A really nice girlfriend, and he now knows what he’s working for. Last year he did a good Tour, a good Dauphine, a good San Sebastian, and a good Vuelta, where he finished 10th on GC.”

Bennett will now set his sights on the Tour de France, where he and Gesink will focus on stage wins. Though it won’t be his Tour debut — that was last year — this year does mark the first time Bennett has known he’s racing the Tour months ahead of the race.

“Last year I knew I was doing the Tour about three days out,” he said. “It’s really nice that you don’t have to prove yourself — you don’t have to go to the Dauphine at full speed, and then you’re actually a bit rooted by the time the Tour comes around.

“I’m not going to ride GC. We’re just going to go stage hunting. And I think that’s all of us. I know me and Robert won’t be riding GC, we’ll just get some bottles for the sprinters, and once it hits the mountains, we’ll head up the road. Last year in the Vuelta, I also had that same ambition. I waited for Stevie [Kruiswijk] quite a lot, and sat at the back, and then actually I ended up riding GC, and it was quite a change. But maybe having that first week easy was really good for me.”

At the Tour, Bennett will cross paths with Majka, Talansky, Bookwalter, and Boswell again. They’ll have different ambitions on the roads of France in July. But they’ll all know that after a week of WorldTour racing in California, Bennett was best.

Talansky may have been strongest on Baldy, and Bookwalter was the fastest of the GC riders in Big Bear Lake, but Bennett’s aggression on Mt. Hamilton set the stage for the Kiwi to take the biggest win of his career — and pull the rug out from under the Americans on home soil.

Video: Highlights, Stage 2 of 2017 Amgen Tour of California

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