George Bennett rode across the finish line at the Amgen Tour of California and threw his arms up in victory and relief.
On Saturday, a day after Bennett shocked himself and the field with a time trial performance that moved him into first place in the overall standings, the 27-year old from New Zealand won his first WorldTour event.
“It’s a pretty strange thing,” a champagne-soaked Bennett said after the race.
Cowbells rang as thousands of fans stood in 90-degree heat along Green Street in Pasadena to watch cyclists make the final sprint of the seven-day, 583-mile road race that started in Sacramento, traveled along the coast and climbed through the mountains of Southern California.
Evan Huffman, 27, from Elk Grove, Calif. won the stage — his second of this year’s race. Huffman, who rides for Rally Cycling, became the first Continental rider to win one, and then two, stages of a WorldTour event.
“I feel exhausted. I felt actually pretty bad at the start today,” said Huffman, who also won Stage 4 from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita. “It is kind of disbelief that I was able to do it two times.”
But it was Bennett, the first cyclist from New Zealand to win a WorldTour event, who stole the show.
Bennett gave himself little chance of riding fast enough around Big Bear Lake at Friday’s 15-mile time trial to improve or maintain his place in the standings.
But he entered the final stage Saturday with a 35-second advantage over BORA-hansgrohe’s Rafal Majka of Poland, who had led since Stage 2.
“I had a few hours last night to let it sink in,” Bennett said. “Then clicked over to business time. We had a job on our hands today and we were up to the task.”
It would have taken something short of a disaster for Bennett, who rides from Team LottoNL-Jumbo, to lose the race in the final stage, a 78-mile course that started at the Mountain High ski resort and traveled through the Angeles National Forest.
But early in the stage, Bennett saw exactly what he needed to avoid as riders descended from the mountains nearing speeds of 50 mph and American Taylor Phinney crashed, suffering minor injuries.
Bennett rode in the field the entire course as five cyclists — Huffman and teammate Rob Britton, Lachlan Morton, Nicolas Edet and David Lopez Garcia — led a breakaway 30 miles after the start.
The break’s advantage grew to about two minutes and dwindled to 30 seconds as it entered downtown Pasadena.
But the field never closed the gap.
“It was crazy,” Huffman said. “We kind of just started sprinting really early. It was a slow-motion sprint and I was barely able to outmuscle them at the end.”
Majka edged American Andrew Talansky, the favorite to win the tour after he won Stage 5 on Mt. Baldy, in the overall standings by one second to finish behind Bennett, 35 seconds off the lead.
Bennett completed the tour in 22 hours, 54 minutes and 38 seconds.
“I didn’t have huge expectations of myself,” Bennett said, adding that through the final two stages of racing he felt “a lot of disbelief at first and that turned into focus and then it turned into pain.
“Then it was happy again and then pain again when someone sprayed champagne in my eyes.”