In a parking lot off of Big Bear Boulevard, long before his start time in Stage 6 of the Amgen Tour of California, George Bennett of New Zealand emerged from a Team LottoNL-Jumbo RV and took a seat on an ice chest.
Bennett, who lives in Girona, Spain, and mostly races in Europe, kicked back and raved about the scenery, culture and fun nature of the first five stages of the race.
But when the 27-year-old was asked about the individual time trial, 15 miles around Big Bear Lake Friday on a picturesque spring day, he didn’t pull any punches.
“There were way better options for the course,” Bennett said.
Sharp turns made the course seem dangerous, Bennett said, and the altitude at 6,742 feet made it difficult to push limits because of a lack of oxygen and vision could become impaired while pedaling at speeds around 30 mph.
“It’s not a time trial run particularly,” Bennett said. “It doesn’t suit me.”
Two and a half hours later, Bennett stepped atop the podium to put on the yellow jersey as the Tour of California’s new overall leader.
He shocked the field — and himself — recording a fast enough time of 28 minutes, 45 seconds to finish fourth in the stage and overtake Rafal Majka of Poland, who had led the race since Stage 2.
“I am the most surprised guy,” Bennett said after the race, a genuine expression of disbelief on his face. “I never thought I’d be here. It was fast, it was furious … you needed a lot of power today and that’s not what I have. I don’t know where it came from.”
Jonathan Dibben of Britain won the time trial in 28:27. It was the 23-year-old’s first stage win in his first appearance at the Tour of California. Brent Bookwalter of the United States placed second, moving him from sixth to fourth in the overall race, 45 seconds behind Bennett.
“It’s a big shock for me,” Dibben said. “I just got out there and let the pain come to me. After a few [miles] I was already swinging and I just kept digging.”
Said Bookwalter: “It was a challenging course. I am always a little critical of time trial courses in the U.S. because it’s out and back … but this one was big and interesting.”
Andrew Talansky of the United States entered Stage 6 as the favorite to take the overall lead after winning Stage 5 on Mount Baldy. He started Friday in fourth place, 44 seconds off the lead.
“Talansky,” Bennett said without hesitation when asked before the race who he thought would take the overall lead. “He is very good at the time trial. He’s been at altitude.”
But Talansky finished third in the time trial and is 36 seconds behind Bennett. It was a strong performance for the 28-year-old, if not for Bennett’s unexpected finish.
The Tour of California concludes Saturday, when cyclists depart the Mountain High ski resort, drop into the Angeles National Forest and end the 78-mile ride in front of the convention center in Pasadena.
Stage 7, which features terrain that makes it unlikely that any cyclist will make up a considerable amount of time, seems a mere formality after the decisive stages at Mount Baldy and Big Bear Lake.
But Bennett, who is in the lead by 35 seconds and seemingly only has to avoid major trouble to secure the overall race victory, doesn’t necessarily see it like that.
“This is the ideal situation, having the yellow with one day to go, but it’s really not over yet,” Bennett said. “This is not like the last days of the grand tours when they drop back and drink champagne.
“One day to go.”