George Bennett joining cycling's elite with Tour of California achievement
If all went according to plan on the final stage of the Tour of California on Sunday morning (NZ Time), George Bennett will have joined the prestigious group of New Zealand athletes.
The 27-year-old from Nelson will be among the likes of Steven Adams and Lydia Ko in being one of the best in the world in a truly global sport.
Having rode superbly in the queen stage to Mount Baldy on Friday, he then shocked even himself in the time trial the following day to take hold of the yellow jersey.
The final stage from Mountain High to Pasadena, which starts at 5.50am and is expected to finish at 8.42am has a couple of category two climbs, which shouldn't be too taxing for Bennett, who started the day with a 35 second lead over Poland's Rafal Majka.
"I'm the most surprised guy that watched the time trial or who was part of the event today," Bennett said after the time trial.
"I never thought I would be here. When I looked at the profile of the time trial course it was fast and furious. You just needed a lot of power today and that's not what I have.
"I don't know where it came from. I think just went out there – are you familiar with the expression twisting a nut … that's all I can think of about my performance.
"It gives me a lot of hope for the future and a lot of optimism and a lot of confidence."
Winning the Tour of California would be the greatest achievement by a New Zealander in road racing.
He showed he was capable of winning a World Tour stage race by getting a top 10 finish at last year's Vuelta a Espana, becoming the first New Zealand rider to achieve such a high placing in a Grand Tour.
Bennett has always been a great climber, but knew he'd have to improve his time trialling to take himself to the next level. So he spent the offseason working hard on this and getting technical help from his Dutch Lotto NL Jumbo team.
But while his success in the Tour of California is a great achievement, it's unlikely he'll be able to repeat it at this year's Tour de France, where he'll revert to the role of being a super domestique for the team's leader Steven Kruijswijk, guiding him through the mountains.
However, what this result does show is that Bennett has now joined the sport's elite.
- Sunday Star Times